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Sounding: VSO delights with Respighi’s “Botticelli Triptych”

Special to the Gazette

In one of the last hurrah performance moments in the soon-to-be-closed and renovated Phi Beta Kappa Hall, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra started turning out the lights in what still is the finest “performing arts” facility in town, with a colorful and diverse program Thursday.

With JoAnn Falletta on the podium — always a pleasant happening in this Williamsburg series — the orchestra opened with Respighi’s “Botticelli Triptych,” a work of expressive beauty and lasting impression. Although not as sonically robust as some of his other works, “Triptych” is adorned with his wonderfully creative sense of sound, color, spirit and development.

Musical representations of three Botticelli paintings, “Spring,” the opening movement, swirls with energy; the second, “Adoration of the Magi,” is gentle, colored with exotic chant-like sounds, a portion of which is built around the familiar medieval hymn/seasonal carol, “Veni, Veni Emmanuel“; “Birth of Venus” is a swirling, shimmering, sunlight reflecting off the water delight that envelops you in sound sensations. It’s a beautiful work, delicately done here.

The VSO is to be appreciated for periodically allowing main stage and secondary stage solo performances by members of the orchestra. It allows exposure for them, as well as for us in getting to hear them outside the main orchestra sound. Most of them are highly successful and this particular one, offering the solo debut of Michael Byerly, the VSO principal clarinetist, in Aaron Copland’s “Clarinet Concerto,” was true to form.

Commissioned by Benny Goodman, the two section work, which is joined by a cadenza, starts on an extended and slow-paced note of gentleness and lyricism, before moving into the more gymnastic, jazz-influenced section. Of the former, its quiet quality and thoughtful emotional swells crafted a melancholic, dreamy like atmosphere. The cadenza is a virtuoso exercise that, here, vividly showcased and challenged the clarinet and its player’s full capabilities. The second portion is highly syncopated, with rhythmic, energetic lines that found both orchestral and soloist fully engaged.

As for Byerly, he displayed masterful control of the score and clarinet. His sound was clean, clear and focused, his ability to make the instrument sing in the stratospheric upper range as well as in the lower depths added artistry to musical athleticism. His playing was exemplary and added interest to what is not a super engaging concerto.

The fare closed with the popular Brahms “Serenade No. 2 in A Major,” with its rich harmonies and sweeping lyrical lines. Certainly one of the popularly played works on classical radio stations, this early composition preceded his larger scale “Symphony No. 1” by close to 20 years. However, the lush melodic lines that would become so associated with his later compositions are evident in this gentle five section Serenade.

As a composition, it is of interest that Brahms wrote it without violins, placing more emphasis on the woodwinds. The Serenade opens with a delicate, dulcet Allegro, followed by a sunny and optimistically centered Scherzo, an expressive, slower paced Adagio, and a jaunty Quasi Menuetto, closing off with a lively and celebratory Rondo. To each, Falletta and musicians brought a sense of musical involvement that supplied meaning and enjoyment.

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