It was an interesting program for one of the main stage concerts of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, seemingly more Pops than not, but, it worked in providing a pleasurable Friday "Night at the Movies" in the Ferguson Center.
Following a preview of next season's music making by conductor JoAnn Falletta, the evening of powerful and persuasive movie scores began with Bernard Hermann's Suite from "Vertigo," one of Alfred Hitchcock's sensational tension-filled films. The score certainly captures the upside down world of the movie, with unsettling harmonics and combinations of sounds that suggested a struggle between real and unreal. Falletta and company brought appropriate levels of tension and suspense to its playing.
Continuing with highly charged sounds was John Corigliano's interesting Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra from "The Red Violin." The music in the movie is dramatic and, as with "Vertigo," intense. It works brilliantly in following the saga of the blood-varnished violin through three centuries, each playing out aspects of tarot cards drawn by Anna in 1681 prior to the death of Anna and their newborn child. However, as a stand-alone concert piece, it doesn't allow a listening narrative that supports the movie's thematic elements. There are mighty, even monumental musical moments here and periodic moments of things foreboding. But, other than Anna's recurring, haunting theme, it ends up more an abstract listening experience in which the soloist showcases elements of sustained lyricism and at time mighty virtuosic abilities.
Finnish violinist Elina Vahala (born in Iowa but raised in Finland) did the honors. Acclaimed a sensational player on all accounts, Vahala has a strong international reputation. Her delivery of the score allowed aspects of passion and drama to shine, as well as an impressive technique and full bodied, richly developed sound. No doubt a powerhouse of ability and capability.
For whatever reason, she chose to play from the score, which was disappointing, especially since she's been doing this work for a while. Although she had the notes firmly under control, deeper levels of emotional involvement could have been achieved had she played directly to her audience and not the music stand. She followed "Red Violin" with Massenet's brief Meditation from "Thais," which was beautiful and expressive.
There was no indication of her violin's ancestry, but she's been known to use a Guadagnini, circa 1780, and Stradivarius, circa 1678 (thematically, imagine the hands that have handled these esteemed instruments). Whatever violin she used, its notably appealing tone and her strikingly talented ability would have been more appreciated in something like the Sibelius concerto. That would have been a wow.
The remainder of the program was devoted to three giants of movie making music, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, and John Williams. Copland's "Red Pony" was yet another demonstration of his amazing ability to craft visual music that carries the listener on a narrative journey. Gershwin's "American in Paris" is one of best known scores of the genre with its jazz-blues influences, rhythmic energy, and whimsy. With taxi horns and saxophones to help paint a picture of Paris and its hustle and bustle, the work is highly appealing and was given a solid, soaring performance.
As if an afterthought, Falletta announced that an encore work would be added, acknowledging Williams and his mastery at movie making scores. With that, the orchestra launched into a rigorous rendering of the pulsing theme from "Raiders of the Lost Ark," drawing the evening at the movies to a close and another standing ovation.
Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearnce in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."