Guest conductor delivers VSO program on music from the movies

The sound of music from the movies was the theme, with variations, during the Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s April 5 program at the Ferguson Center.

More Pops fare than not, it seemed to bank on the appeal of big-screen music and composers for audience draw. I’m not sure it worked. The rain may have kept some away; it may have been the content for a “Classics” series didn’t engage people; or it may have been a combination of both. Empty seats aside, there were, however, two interesting aspects to be had that should have had some appeal: the chance to see guest conductor Sarah Hicks in action and to hear an unusual work for an unusual instrument.

Hicks is the principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra’s “Live at Orchestra Hall” series that, among other hip things, features film music, not to mention playing live music for major film screenings. So she was a natural fit for this themed evening. With impressive credentials having served guest conducting stints with the likes of the Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles orchestras, as well as the Richmond Symphony, her obvious skills served her well in this program.

She presented a smart, confident presence on the podium, a confident conductor fully in charge of the orchestra and the music. Her beats were expressive and exacting. No showy flourishes, just solid music making that produced solid results. She also proved to be a congenial host, offering informative commentary, a sense of humor, and an appreciation for the talents of the VOA.

I liked her style — a lot. It would have been nice to hear her in an overall meatier program, just to see the total range of abilities.

The instrumental focus was on the pipa, often called a Chinese lute, the sound of which is brittle and cold, versus the lute’s more romantic or refined quality. Associated focus was also on one of the pipa’s most esteemed players, Wu Man.

Wu has embraced the pipa’s two thousand-some-year origins and has collaborated with the likes of the Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and has premiered works of Phillip Glass, Lou Harrison and Tan Dun, the latter providing the featured work here.

The roots of Concerto for String Orchestra and Pipa trace to another of his works dealing with aspects of Taoist funeral traditions and connecting with the spiritual world. Tan is a talented and engaging composer of diverse styles, among them film (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon“), thus his inclusion on this program.

It opened with high energy, emphatic statements that evolved into a work that blended multiple styles from traditional Chinese to hints of Bach to contemporary references. It’s a very complex piece. And, to the credit of Hicks and the VOA, it was an impressive, dynamic performance, which is not to say it was a listening delight. It mixed traditional Chinese-style sounds with minimalism, irregular beats and structures, even including a portion where the concertmaster stood and tuned the strings while the pipa played.

There were also vocal shouts and sounds from the strings and soloist and a bit of instrument slapping. The only respite from the unrest were the Adagio, which was meditative and almost lyrical, and the peaceful and quiet end.

More theatrical than musically memorable, it was educationally interesting to hear the pipa and its player. Wu easily displayed her virtuoso mastery of it and its frets and received warm and welcoming applause for her developed talents.

The evening also included Prokofiev’s delightful Suite from “Lieutenant Kije,” one of the first sound films in the Soviet Union; an expansive bit on “Tara” from Steiner‘s score to “Gone With the Wind”; a romantic segment from Rota’s “Romeo and Juliet”; a dramatic rendering from John Williams’ “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”; and a dramatic and sweeping “Spellbound Concerto for Orchestra” of Rozsa, complete with eerie-sounding theremin, which brought this “Night at the Movies” to a close.

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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