Review: West Michigan Symphony’s Masterworks concert a tribute to symphonic music, with a surprise

The Muskegon Chronicle By Laura Alexandria
on February 08, 2014 at 12:24 PM, updated February 08, 2014 at 12:28 PM

Customarily a classical performance features a guest artist, and the talent of the members of the symphony fades into the background.

Friday night’s Masterworks concert at the Frauenthal Theater, Surprise and Classical Symphonies, brought to the foreground the gifts of several musical virtuosos within the West Michigan Symphony.

The first number of the evening, Concerto for Violin and Oboe by Johann Sebastian Bach, showcased the musical mastery of violinist Jennifer Walvoord and oboist Gabriel Renteria.

Walvoord has a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Michigan and is concertmaster of West Michigan Symphony. Renteria did graduate work at the University of Washington and at the Colburn Conservatory, and he is currently the Principal Oboe and Artist-in-Residence with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.

Under the direction of Scott Speck, the spirited first movement of the concerto was crisply performed. During the second movement, the violin and the oboe tossed the theme back and forth with slow, rhythmic simplicity.

The two soloists blended beautifully, with Renteria’s oboe offering a particularly sweet tone on the higher notes and Walvoord’s violin producing lovely tones in the lower register, creating a velvety contrast. The symphony dominated in the zesty third movement while the two soloists playfully sparred with one another.

Although set in a minor key, the piece was upbeat and stimulating due to Bach’s complex and embellished musical lines.

The first half of the program ended with Symphony no. 94 in G Major, “Surprise” by Franz Joseph Haydn. This piece, which premiered in 1792, was one of 104 symphonies that Haydn wrote.

The first movement began with beautiful harmonic measures and the second movement was dynamically varied, from violins playing almost imperceptibly to the “surprise” timpani interruption.

The supposition in the late 1700s was that Haydn had including this intriguing percussive element to “wake up” anyone in the audience who fell asleep at his concert, although Haydn assiduously denied this rumor. The dancelike third movement was lively with a strong beat, but lacked a true sense of power. Although at times the piece was lackluster, the symphony ended the number with precision and control.

The climax of the evening was Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano by Peter Schickele. This modern composition was performed by Vireo Ensemble, musicians who celebrate and perform eclectic music.

Jonathan Holden, clarinet, is principal clarinet of the West Michigan Symphony. Caroline Holden, violin, is a frequent guest of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra. Carrie Pierce, cello, is assistant principal cello of the Corpus Christi Symphony. Kelly Karamanov, piano, is principal pianist for the West Michigan Symphony.

With energy and emotion, Vireo performed a piece that was somber and sensual, lyrical and chaotic, harmonious and dissonant, shy and bold. The quartet had beautiful command of this contemporary piece. Their tones blended with and complemented one another, and their performance left the audience in awe.

The evening ended with Symphony no. 1, Op. 25, in D Major, “The Classical” by Sergei Prokofiev. Fewer than 40 musicians were onstage to tackle this tribute to the classics by the Russian composer.

With enthusiasm, Speck journeyed through the robust piece with the musicians. The energetic first movement allowed the strings to provide a solid base on which the woodwind and brass sections interposed interesting musical phrases.

While the second movement was sentimental, the third movement was almost comical in its brevity and with its extraneous notes. The brisk fourth movement gave the string section a work-out, which they mastered well.

Prokofiev’s piece was an inspired way to end the program, but the performance of this formidable number bordered on being pedestrian.

About 1,150 people attended the only performance of West Michigan Symphony’s Surprise and Classical Symphonies.

While the concert was a tribute to symphonic music and local talent, the most entertaining moments of the evening came from a modern day composition performed by a quartet. That was, indeed, the “surprise” of the evening.

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Michigan Arts & Culture Council
National Endowment for the Arts