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Classical Connection: A review of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic's March 9 concert

Andrew Constantine conducted the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra in music by Clarice Assad, Samuel Barber, and Antonin Dvorak at Purdue Fort Wayne's Auer Performance Hall in the Rhinehart Music Center on Saturday.

Clarice Assad
marcelo macaue
Clarice Assad

Clarice Assad was born Clarice Vasconcelos da Cunha Assad Simao on February 9, 1978, in Rio de Janeiro into a musical family. She has been influenced by Brazilian culture, Romanticism, world music, and jazz. Her musical education was in the United States, where she earned a Bachelor of Music degree at Chicago's Roosevelt University and a Master's degree in composition at the University of Michigan. She has received a number of awards for her compositions.

The Philharmonic performed Assad's "Impressions for String Orchestra," which was commissioned by the New Century Chamber Orchestra in 2008. Assad said that she intended the five-movement composition to display the string orchestra's "performers, diversity, and uniqueness."

The first movement is titled "Personas, Theme and Variations," which Assad intended to be "a musical portrait of the first impressions between the musicians of the orchestra and the composer herself." It is dominated by a poignant and moving theme that reminded me of Negro spirituals, particularly "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child." Each group of string players is showcased during the variations.

There were notable solos and duets by principal players, including violinists Violetta Todorova and Johanna Bourkova Morunov, violist Derek Reeves, cellists Andre Gaskins and Deborah Nitka Hicks, and bass player Kevin Piekarski (who dazzled us with particularly virtuoso playing on that large instrument). There was great feeling and great virtuosity by the musicians throughout the movement.

The second movement, titled "Fusion, Dansas Brasileiras" is a depiction of Assad's homeland, which is known for its unique, rhythmic, and colorful folk music and dances. This is, in a sense, much as her compatriot Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) did in his famous series of "Bachianas Brasileiras."

While Villa-Lobos used musical structures established by Johann Sebastian Bach, Assad's work is quite different in its musical direction and overall sound. Asad's depiction of Brazil is more "contemporary," but her use of the cellos reminded me of some of Villa-Lobos' writing for those larger string instruments. This is one of the times she used American jazz. There was very fine and energetic playing by the Philharmonic's strings.

The third movement, titled "Affection, Slow Waltz," was inspired by Hollywood's classic film noirs of the 1940's and 1950's. The waltz is definitely is a memorable section and it was played with great feeling.

The fourth movement, titled "Precision, Perpetual Motion" is a display of the musicians' skill and proficiency. The energy in the performance of this section was often dazzling and overwhelming.

The fifth and final movement, titled "Unity, Coda," is intended to be a musical bridge and it concludes with a reflection of the suite's opening. This is probably the shortest section in the suite and it has much of the same sentimentality found in some of Villa-Lobos' music.

Rachel Barton Pine
Photo provided
Rachel Barton Pine

American violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who was born in Chicago on October 11, 1974, was featured in Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto. Pine began playing the violin at the age of 3 and she played with the Chicago String Ensemble at the age of 7 and then the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under Erich Leinsdorf, at the age of 10. After some early elementary education, she was homeschooled by her parents and underwent additional musical education at the Music Institute of Chicago.

She has performed with numerous American and European orchestras and made a number of recordings. Despite a terrible accident on Jan. 16, 1995, on the Chicago Metra train system, in which she lost a leg, Pine underwent physical therapy and was able to resume her career after two years.

American composer and pianist Samuel Barber (1910-1981) composed his only violin concerto (his Opus 14) in 1939 in Switzerland and Pennsylvania for violinist Iso Briselli, who, like Barber, had graduated from Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music in 1934. The work was commissioned by industrialist Samuel Simeon Fels. The three-movement concerto underwent a number of revisions before it was first performed by Herbert Baumel, with Fritz Reiner conducting the Curtis Symphony Orchestra in early 1939, after Briselli had rejected the concerto. Albert Spaulding gave the "official" premiere of the concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on Feb. 11, 1941.

Pine came onto the stage in a small electric scooter and a stagehand carried her violin. Just as Itzhak Perlman does, Pine played seated. She wore a very fancy, brocaded, full-skirted yellow dress. She used the 1742 "ex-Bazzini ex-Soldat" Guarnerius del Gezu, a violin which was in the possession of Johannes Brahms for a time. Typical of such instruments, Barton's violin has a deep, rich, and strong tone.

The movements of Barber's violin concerto are marked Allegro, Andante, and Presto in moto perpetuo (perpetual motion).

The first movement has considerable emotion and power. Constantine and the Philharmonic provided excellent accompaniment as Pine played with considerable intensity, precision, and drama.

The second movement is quite lyrical and has sustained lines for the violin, following an extended orchestral introduction. For the most part, there are no cadenzas or true solos for the violin. Instead, the violin plays most of the time and is accompanied by very strong orchestral lines. The musical dialogue between Pine and the orchestra was taut and strong; they all played as a musical team and were brilliant throughout.

The third movement requires great energy by the violin and the orchestra. The musical journey here is almost non-stop and unrelenting. We witnessed a great musical partnership because Pine played with great strength and beauty, while the Philharmonic provided a strong and secure foundation.

Maud Powell
Photo provided
Maud Powell

A tremendous standing ovation resulted in Pine playing an encore. She spoke, loud and clear, to the audience about the American violinist Maud Powell (1867-1920), who was a pioneering American woman musician.

In honor of Women's History Month and because the Philharmonic would be playing a symphony by Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), she played Powell's unaccompanied arrangement of Dvorak's "Humoresque No. 7 in G-flat Major," originally a piano piece written in 1894 when Dvorak was living in the United States. This is one of Dvorak's most famous pieces and Pine played it in the original key! This is a lovely and moving piece and she played it with love and admiration of Dvorak's memorable achievements while he was in our country.

After intermission, the Philharmonic played the Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Opus 70, by Dvorak. The four-movement work was completed on March 17, 1885, and premiered in London on April 22, 1885, with the composer conducting. The four movements are marked Allegro maestoso, Poco adagio, Scherzo: Vivace, and Finale: Allegro. This is probably the most dramatic and most powerful of Dvorak's nine symphony and it was praised by both Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

The symphony is, for the most part, very intense and quite moving.

Indeed, the performance was another one that could give "goose bumps" because it was so wonderfully performed. Constantine told the audience that this is probably Dvorak's best symphony and I would tend agree with him. The conductor had researched the symphony years ago in Prague, where Dvorak had lived most of his life, and found orchestral parts from the early twentieth century that showed how different conductors had interpreted the music.

Constantine said his musical discoveries had given him insights into how the symphony could be "improved." This shows how conductors often interpret a musical score, seeking how to give more nuanced performances.

After the very intense first movement, with some really brilliant playing by the Philharmonic, the second movement focused on a different type of intensity, more sustained and lyrical. Here we heard a performance with deep emotion and longing. Constantine said this movement probably reflects on the death of Dvorak's mother and his eldest child. The third movement is dancelike, reflecting on some of the Slavonic dances that Dvorak had written earlier in his life, and it was given a dazzling and breathtaking performance. Then, the fourth movement was quite powerful and overwhelming; here everything seemed to come together and I recognized that we were hearing an exceptional performance by the Philharmonic.

The next Philharmonic "Masterworks Series" concert will be Saturday, April 13, at 7:30 p.m. in the Auer Performance Hall at Purdue Fort Wayne. Andrew Constantine will conduct Sir Edward Elgar's "Falstaff," Opus 68, a musical depiction of the comical and bumbling character created by Sir William Shakespeare, and Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 61, with violinist Philippe Quint.

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