The Ferguson Center was filled with some big sounds Friday during the Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s recent program of Rossini, Mendelssohn and Beethoven.
Leading the way was guest conductor and Norfolk-born Thomas Wilkins, who heads the Omaha Symphony, is principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl, and is affiliated with the Boston Symphony as its Family and Youth Concert Conductor Chair. His past stints also include serving as the associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony
Wilkins doesn’t rely on fancy flourishes to make music. He’s modest in podium style but mighty in product. In fact, very mighty and artistic and insightful and all things bright and positive and wonderful, as heard from the opening work, Rossini‘s Overture to “La Gazza Ladra.” Widely known for its use in Bugs Bunny cartoons, it‘s a fun piece of lightness. Rather than take an easy route and dash it off in a straightforward manner, Wilkins graced it with dignity, daintiness and dynamism that cashed in on the musical impact of those Rossini crescendos and allowed the work to burst into a bloom of joy.
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor is one of the literature’s most popular. Romantically styled and filled with lush, lyrical moments, the solo action begins within seconds of the opening orchestral sound and continues nearly uninterrupted throughout the work. It’s a continuum of melody that brings out the best a soloist has to offer in terms of sustained expression (both fiery and emotional), lyricism and virtuoso skills, qualities which here were superbly handled by guest violinist Sirena Huang.
Huang is among today’s crop of hot shot violinists who have been garnering worldwide notice. As heard here, she is certainly worthy of the praise she’s been getting. It’s easy for a work as well known as the E Minor to be a ho-hum affair. With Huang, however, her delivery was magical, ethereal and exciting. She displayed a powerhouse command of the instrument and the score, delivering it with virtuoso flair, gusto, intense sensitivity, serenity, drama and confidence. It sizzled with excitement, made more so by Wilkins who maintained a perfect balance between soloist and orchestra and allowed the music and Huang’s brilliance to flow.
Closing the fare was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, called by Wagner, the apotheosis of the dance for its moments of infectious rhythm and energy. From the gentle opening that transitions into a somewhat rollicking theme, through the second movement’s more somber reflection and the Scherzo’s pleasantly giddy romp, to the finale’s non stop thrill and chill of a ride, the A Major is a listener’s delight. This was the most exciting live performance of this work I’ve heard. It was remarkably thrilling, the orchestra seeming particularly responsive to all things Wilkins. He was a man in charge who led a charged performance start to finish, finding many in the audience saying they‘d vote for him to succeed JoAnn Falletta.
Speaking of Falletta — prior to the concert’s start, a video was shown of her announcing next season and the roster of guest conductors and their programs, in addition to her own. Moving into her final season, it all looks quite exciting.
Also making a special appearance prior to the start was Pam Northam, First Lady of Virginia, who, along with her governor husband, will serve as the hosts of VSO’s next season as it enters its 100th year. She spoke of transformative part art and music play in our lives, briefly mentioning her own family and their individual musical connections (including the governor who used to play French horn).
On exiting the packed Ferguson, one patron was overheard saying, “The New York Philharmonic doesn’t have anything on the Virginia Symphony.” Based on this evening of fine music that really couldn’t have been finer and to borrow from an idiomatic expression: From her lips to our ears.
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."