Virginia Symphony opens season with dramatic performances

To say that the Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert for the 2017-18 season was out of this world would be stretching the point, but it would be on target with the program’s primary theme — the celebration of NASA Langley Research Center’s 100th anniversary.

For the Friday event in the Ferguson Center, JoAnn Falletta and company embraced Hampton’s NASA Langley’s importance to our region, including a moving proclamation tribute presented by a Newport News council member to the on-stage 99-year-old Katherine Johnson. She was the African American mathematician-physicist whose intense and dedicated work at NASA led to the success of the first American man-in-space mission, among others, all of which led to the acclaimed film, “Hidden Figures.”

The evening’s space-inspired theme blasted off with Randall Svane’s “Quantum Flight.” Other than the title, I can’t say it brought to mind images of protons, neutrons and electrons, a problem many composers have when trying to name that tune. That said, the piece was attractive and built on bold statements, lyrical lines and some scurrying patterns that offered musical motion. It was met with warm applause.

Stylistically on the other side of the moon was guest artist and acclaimed electric bass phenom Victor Wooten. A founding and continuing member-player with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, as well as cohort with the likes of Chick Corea, Branford Marsalis, Dave Matthews and Bruce Hornsby, the Denbigh High graduate collaborated with Conni Ellisor to create “The Bass Whisperer.”

Wooten’s mastery of the guitar that has garnered him five Grammy awards was evident in the unusual piece. Not particularly reflective of a concerto style, “Whisperer” seemed to embrace a variety of styles--rhythmic, lyrical, blues, rock, jazz, island sounds, and improv, a bit of a lot. While middle portions of the seeming long piece were quite lyrical solo moments that allowed insight into the truly beautiful sounds possible on a bass guitar, much of the rest of the work had a backup or supportive feel to it which is basically the role of the electric bass in gigs. It became part of the whole. However, cadenzas allowed him to showcase his impressive virtuoso control of the instrument.

Probably the essence of the man was heard best in his encore, “Amazing Grace” that progressed from a simple declaration into jazzed up statements that found the audience, young and older alike, clapping along and, on conclusion, cheering wildly.

The evening’s theme piece was Holst’s “The Planets.” Although a popularly played piece on classical radio stations, hearing it live is the only way to hear it. Under Falletta’s insightful baton, the seven planetary movements relayed a full palette of tone and color that brought interest, involvement and excitement to the Holst.

Not just by name but also by astrological association with human emotions, each segment relays distinctly different dimensions . From the opening and pulsating and powerful war-sounds of “Mars,” to the peacefulness of “Venus,” to the wisdom of “Saturn,” “Planets” is an auditory delight, made even more so here by Falletta’s fine touch and inspiration and the orchestra‘s stellar playing.

The final movement is “Neptune” which brought with it off-stage women’s voices from the Symphony Chorus that merged with the orchestra to provide an intended ethereal, other-worldly sensation. As the orchestra finished its part, the voices continued, gradually and literally fading into space, unseen but deeply felt as the hall fell into extended silence. It was a very dramatic closing for a notably dramatic presentation and opening concert for the orchestra‘s 97th season.

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."

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