“How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree” go the World War I lyrics that reaffirmed my thoughts on the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra’s use of the Community Chapel for its Tuesday program.
The WSO has used the facility before to great musical advantage. Its positives are many: plenty of free parking, a non-pothole filled and well-lit parking lot; a large lobby; seating to allow more than 800 people to attend on one night as opposed to two nights at the Kimball Theatre, which can handle about 400 per night, not to mention allowing for substantial audience expansion; the stage allows the orchestra decent space, room for additional members, a large chorus and one or two grand pianos.
Importantly, it has super acoustics, the major reason for using the Chapel. It offers the best sound venue around, short of the Ferguson. During this program of works I know quite well, I heard musical subtleties that would have been lost in the Kimball. In fact, while I’ve heard principal cellist Neal Cary perform as a soloist with the WSO, I never, until Tuesday, was able to truly hear his warm, inviting and lyrical sound.
The Chapel allowed the WSO to shine and showcase its many fine qualities, as was evident with musical text and subtext combining for a total listening experience. In honesty, conductor Janna Hymes should have scheduled her going-away program in May here to allow a big sound celebration of her 15 seasons here.
Speaking of Hymes, Tuesday afternoon, she had to cancel due to illness. Fortunately, Chia-Hsuan Lin, the associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony, jumped in and went through an afternoon rehearsal with the WSO before leading them through a thoroughly top-drawer performance a few hours later.
Lin was a rock solid conductor whose perfect control over the music and orchestra resulted in superlative playing. Her animated presence on the podium transferred into involved music making. Her peppy delivery of comments positioned her as a cheerleader for the WSO, one who brought from them high quality performances. The WSO also vigorously cheered her presence, as did the audience.
The featured fare was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6. Subtitled “Pathetique,” it’s a dark reflection on aspects of his life and its emotional despair. That he premiered the work nine days before he died set the tone for debates concerning its meaning, application and implication to his less than cheery life. The oddity of that is few composers of his era could so purposefully use richly textured orchestration as an artist a brush in creating a canvas of layered feelings and emotions. That he created some of the most romantic ballet scores ever, as well as operas, overtures, concerti, choral pieces, and chamber works, many of them mainstays of musical chills and thrills, adds to the complexity of his life and music.
Despite debates over its meaning, there’s no debating the work’s lasting appeal. The WSO embraced the second movement’s lines with lyricism and lightness and the third with pulse-raising effervescence. But, it was the first and last sections that relayed its overwhelming sense of sadness, loneliness and heartbreak. Powerful stuff.
Lin’s approach to the work was thoughtful and passionate, drawing us into the vortex of Tchaikovsky’s darkness in a moving and profound manner. It was an exceptionally absorbing interpretation and rendering of which the WSO should be proud.
The remainder of the program consisted of Aaron Copland’s energetic “Outdoor Overture,” which was done with spirit and energy and Rimsky-Korsakov’s colorful “Capriccio Espagnol,” the latter providing a showcase for individual players to showcase their capabilities, tasks they carried out with panache.
I hope negotiations with the Chapel can allow it to be the WSO home. It’s where this orchestra belongs. The community, the musicians and the music deserve nothing less than the best.
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."