VSO's Falletta delights at Ferguson Center

Special to the Gazette

The Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s Friday performance in the Ferguson Center for the Arts was another example of superior playing at the hand of JoAnn Falletta. It was designed to entertain, and in that design it did. A solid program of familiar works comprised the fare: Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides,” Chopin’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” and Brahms’s “Symphony No. 1,” the evening’s spotlight performance.

For some reason, the Mendelssohn replaced the originally announced presentation of Stravinsky’s “Funeral Song.” I must admit disappointment at the substitution in that the Stravinsky would have been a rare hearing; the work was written in 1908 as a memorial tribute to Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky’s teacher, played once and essentially lost until archivists at the St. Petersburg Conservatory uncovered it three years ago. Since then it has been making the rounds of concert halls. Had it made the cut, it would have added extra excitement to the fare but, alas, it was not to be. Maybe in a future program.

What “Funeral Song” would have provided in thoughtful, emotional exploration, “Hebrides” provided in sound and fury, musically suggestive of the rocky remoteness of Staffa Island off the coast of Scotland, home of the famed Fingal’s Cave. A fine example of a tone poem in its mood-setting evocation of turbulent waters, the majesty of the environment, and isolation, its rendering was appropriately and thematically rock solid.

The Chopin is interesting in that it and his first concerto were the only times he waded into the genre. Unlike many such works, this one was designed more to showcase the brilliance of the pianist than to establish a dialog with the orchestra. Chopin wanted to create something that would display his virtuoso skill and technique and prove his worth as a player and composer. And he did just that.

Thus, it’s imperative a soloist be equipped to do it as intended — to dazzle. Prisca Benoit is a French pianist of considerable note who made her US debut four years ago with this orchestra. She’s also affiliated with the Sentara Music and Medicine Center and neurologist Dr. Kamal Chemali, participating in lecture-demonstrations on the therapeutic impact of music and medicine, one of which she appeared in last June at the Kimball Theatre. In fact, Chemali addressed the audience prior to the start of the concert and briefly explained his work and its effectiveness.

As for the Chopin, Benoit was up to its challenges, displaying a wide range of skill and sensitivity, most especially in the hauntingly beautiful second movement with its flowing lines and virtuoso ornamentations. It was so soothing and silky in its delivery that I sensed fluttering eyelids among the listeners, therapeutically speaking. Surrounding the Larghetto were movements that allowed Benoit to display her delicate, feather-light touch and full virtuoso command.

Closing the fare was the Brahms. From the opening heartbeat from the timpani, the Brahms captured attention and set in motion a musical adventure of lush lyricism, sensitivity, and, with the final movement, heightened dramatic emotion. With shades of Beethoven hovering throughout, it is considered monumental work. That it took nearly 20 years to perfect, says a great deal over the thought Brahms put into its perfection.

Despite its familiarity or maybe because of it, Falletta chose a sweeping, broad-brush touch that allowed the piece with it passions, heroic elements, exquisite melodies and lyrical lines to breathe and take on a sense of grandeur that enlivened its appeal and excitement, much like a first hearing. Falletta’s passion was palpable in what was an energetic and pretty spectacular performance that capped off a fine evening of music.

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