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Classical Connection review: Fort Wayne Philharmonic Masterworks Series concert Nov. 11

The Fort Wayne Philharmonic, conducted by Music Director Andrew Constantine, presented music by Samuel Barber, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Ludwig van Beethoven in its Masterworks concert in the Auer Performance Hall at Purdue Fort Wayne on Saturday.

In early 1938, the American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) completed the first of his three Essays for Orchestra. This is essentially a symphonic poem, in one movement, that begins with low strings—violas, cellos, and basses—playing a soft, slow, and somber theme. The Philharmonic musicians provided the appropriate sensitivity and expression in the opening moments. The music grows slowly with the addition of the violins, the winds, the brass, and some percussion. Constantine was highly successful in maintaining the growing momentum, not allowing anything to get out of control.

The music becomes more animated and more intense as it proceeds to a very impressive climax. There is a sense of doom initially that gives way to more hopeful and optimistic themes, as if Barber were reflecting the growing hope that emerged from the dark days of the Great Depression. Barber is known for his very fine string writing, as well as vocal compositions, which is appropriate since he was the nephew of contralto Louise Homer of the Metropolitan Opera. Barber's music tends to "sing" and it was undoubtedly the strong and lyrical melodies that appealed to conductor Arturo Toscanini when he agreed to include this work, along with the beloved Adagio for Strings, in an NBC Symphony broadcast concert in New York City's NBC Studio 8-H on November 5, 1938. Although Toscanini did eventually make a commercial recording of the "Adagio," he never recorded the "Essay." The existing recordings of Toscanini conducting the music are from "unapproved" releases of NBC broadcasts. As far as I know, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra made the first commercial recording of the work, for RCA Victor, on October 20, 1940.

The Philharmonic performance of the "Essay No. 1 for Orchestra," Opus 12, was a rare opportunity to hear a modern performance of one of Barber's first great orchestral works. Barber went on to write the second essay in 1942 and the third essay in 1978. These are works which have occasionally been performed and recorded; certainly, they should be heard more, so it was great to hear the first of Barber's series of shorter orchestral pieces.

In a conversation with Andrew Constantine before the concert, he admitted that, like me, he not been familiar with the Concerto in A minor for Oboe and Strings by English composer and conductor Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). It is clearly a wonderful, very moving, three-movement work that showcases some brilliant oboe playing along with lush writing for string orchestra. There are a variety of moods in the music, perhaps because it was written in the dark days of World War II, in 1943, when London was subjected to repeated attacks by German planes and buzz bombs, an early version of a guided missile. Indeed, the premiere of the concerto was delayed because the popular "Proms" concerts in the Royal Albert Hall were suspended due to the great danger of bombing.

Vaughan Williams had just completed his serene Fifth Symphony, which was filled with hope in the midst of terrible suffering, and the concerto was generally "upbeat" and written for English oboist Leon Goosens, the brother of the popular conductor Eugene Aynsley Goosens. There are clearly moments that are typical of Vaughan Williams' appreciation of English folk music; I found much of this be "jaunty" and "lively."

Our soloist was Orion Rapp, who has been principal oboist of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic since the fall of 2013. This very fine performance really displayed the talents of a gifted musician "in our midst" who was more than capable of playing the challenging solos with great feeling and appreciation. The strings were skillfully guided by Constantine, who maintained a good balance between the soloist and the ensemble.

(There was a big "surprise" after the concerto, which received a warm ovation. Rapp used a microphone to announce that he was going to sing! The occasion was his personal way of showing his love and appreciation of his girlfriend. So, he went to a piano and sang with real feeling...and it soon became apparent that this was a proposal. He then called her to the stage, knelt in front of her, and presented an engagement ring. As the crowd and musicians applauded, the girlfriend accepted his proposal. I have to admit this is the first time I have seen a wedding proposal during a symphony concert.)

After the intermission, the concert concluded with an excellent performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Opus 92, which was composed in 1811 and 1812. This has long been my personal favorite among Beethoven's nine completed symphonies. It is filled with memorable melodies, strong rhythms, and some very lush and innovative orchestration.

Beethoven wrote this symphony in the days in which Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was conquering much of Europe and threatening Russia. The composer had personally suffered from the bombardment of Vienna and sought refuge in a cellar or basement. Although Beethoven's hearing was continuing to fail, he insisted on conducting the premiere in Vienna, Austria, on December 8, 1813, and he admitted that it was a patriotic expression. It was also a very unique and remarkable work, particularly in its use of a moving funeral march in the second movement (honoring the soldiers who had lost their lives or been wounded) and in the startling, unique finale.

Constantine and the Philharmonic gave us all of the varying elements of this groundbreaking work. The conductor maintained considerable intensity, whether in the heartbreaking funeral music or the dazzling third and fourth movements. There were a number of very fine performances by the featured players and the complete ensemble. I should note that the second movement begins much as Barber's "Essay," using initially low strings, then adding the second violins, the first violins, the winds, and the brass, as if to build the intensity and "anguish" of Beethoven's heartfelt tribute to the Austrian soldiers.

Beethoven's nine symphonies are all very popular to this day and have been featured in numerous concerts and recordings over the years. This performance of the seventh symphony was one of the best and I was pleased that Constantine apparently included all of the optional repeats in the score, which were routinely omitted in earlier performances, especially in the days of 78-rpm recordings.

I hope that we will eventually see a revival of broadcasts of the Philharmonic concerts, as well as additional commercial recordings, so that more people can appreciate the very fine performances such as was experienced on Saturday night.

Rob Nylund is the host of WBOI's Classical Connection every Saturday evening from 6 to 8 p.m.