soundings

The Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra delivered one of its biggest programs under the Janna Hymes earlier this month in the cavernous large Williamsburg Community Chapel.

And the venue size was important in that it featured Beethoven’s monumental Symphony No. 9 in D minor and a chorus of some 230 people. Since we have no performing space to accommodate such an huge undertaking, the Chapel with its rock solid acoustics was the natural place for this important musical happening.

It was also significant in that it allowed the orchestra’s old patrons and new ones to gather for one event rather than the current two night structure. In fact, the reception the WSO garnered for its superior performance was beyond the norm in terms of audience response — cheers, whistles, and full voiced appreciation.

The event kicked off with a vibrant playing of Shostakovich’s energetic and appropriately festive “Festival Overture.” It was given an enthusiastic, bright, brisk and spirited reading. Sadly, the originally scheduled work, Symphony No. 2 (”Island of Innocence”) by Kevin Puts was dropped. Written after 9/11, the remarkably stirring piece focuses on the forces that battle peace and hope, with peace rising from the ashes. It would have been an absorbing and thematically perfect companion for the Beethoven and its international acceptance as the musical symbol of peace and hope heard in its powerful choral exaltation, “Ode to Joy.” It is what it is goes today’s saying.

As for the evening’s cause of being, the Beethoven was a superb event, the anticipation being the choral section that comes in the final movement. Leading up to that moment most associated with this work are three movements which the WSO easily and expertly handled. The orchestra delivered the opening Allegro’s big, dramatic statements with authority and the scherzo movement’s jolly, effervescent lines with bright attention to rhythmic patterns and detail. The Adagio is an exquisitely lovely segment that is moving and stately, approaching reverential.

For all the niceness of what preceded, it’s the choral Presto that tests the true merits of any performance. It can be simply horrible, such as I’ve heard in performances in other places. However, the WSO and collected voices did themselves and Beethoven proud.

The orchestra was on top of its game in meeting its challenges, the sounds embracing the notable lyricism and power of the piece. The vocalists, drawn from the Williamsburg Choral Guild, Virginia Wesleyan University Singers, Virginia Choral Society, and CNU Chamber Choir--Men’s Chorus and Women’s Chorus, were obviously well trained as individual organizations and performed strongly and splendidly as a unified group under Hymes, capturing the celebratory spirit of Schiller‘s German text and its call to freedom and brotherhood. The sound was massive and mighty.

Guest artists were soprano Colleen Daly, mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero, tenor Joseph Dennis and bass Branch Fields. Their individual and ensemble contributions were flawless. In truth, the quartet segment about three minutes from the end was probably the best, most cohesive I’ve heard, far too many such efforts usually ending up an uneasy mess. But, here there was clarity and conciseness that helped bring the monumental nature of this spectacular work to a glorious and grand close.

To say this WSO program was a big deal is a given. That some 2,000 people turned out to hear it and gave it such a resounding reception would encourage, I hope, more big tent programs in the future.

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

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