A Midwinter Night’s Dream from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

United StatesUnited States Vivaldi, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky: Emily Cornelius (violin), Daniel Boye (baritone), Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio (USA), 28.1.2012 (TW)

Antonio Vivaldi: “Winter” from The Four Seasons (1725)
Sergei Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kije Suite (1933)
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 in G minor, “Winter Dreams” (1866)

The history of Western orchestral music is replete with works that have reverberated far beyond the concert hall to become practically ubiquitous cultural fixtures. Among those, Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons ranks high on the list – particularly the first in the set, “Winter,” which opened this concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at Umstattd Hall. For many, the work is so familiar, and heard in so many contexts (from elevators and malls to television commercials and doctors’ waiting rooms), that it has become something of a musical banality. But the CSO reading of the work was a delightful reminder of just how deeply engaging the piece really is.

CSO violinist Emily Cornelius’ performance intensity and technical bravura were riveting, and invested the work with a truly invigorating lyricism. Her tonal range was a seamless blend of silken delicacy and velvety muscularity, and always in fine balance with the orchestra (pared down to 15 pieces here). Together, orchestra and soloist brought palpable life to Vivaldi’s poetic, pictorial notations, particularly in moments such as pizzicato strings suggesting mincing steps on brittle ice, or trudging through shivery cold winds.

Next came Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Suite, in five movements the composer developed from his score for the 1933 film (released in the U.S. under the title The Czar Wants Sleep), a skewering of Czarist bluster and a biting satire on inept military bureaucracy. Befitting the story line of Czarist commanders inventing the exploits of a non-existent lieutenant (only to kill him off in the end), the music is largely a charming foray into both insouciant joviality and mock-gravitas, and all robustly Russian in flavor.

The guest artist was Daniel Boye, whose crisp, sonorous baritone brought just the right melding of soaring bravado and ponderous, ironic melancholy to the proceedings – an operatic panache that was spicy, but not overly aggressive. Similarly, the orchestra put forth a fully unified understanding of the work’s loopy drama and plucky mischief, from the mournful failed romance played out in the second movement, the comedic majesty of newfound love in the third (Kije’s Wedding), through the familiar, frolicking music of the brisk sleigh ride (Troika) in the fourth, and bittersweet funereal mood of the finale. The work ended as it began, with a somber, haunting off-stage solo trumpet fanfare that, again ironically, flavored the work with a sense of ethereal pomp.

What would a CSO concert be without Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann positing a humorous observation or two with the audience? True to form, before the final work – Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 (“Winter Dreams”) – Zimmermann held up the hefty score and proposed that the composer must have at one time visited Northeast Ohio. Tchaikovsky’s notes for the second movement characterize it as “gloomy land, misty land.” This elicited hearty laughs from the audience all too acquainted with the miserable vagaries of Ohio winters.

What followed, not surprisingly, was a full-blown marvel of orchestral precision under Zimmermann’s fluid baton, drawing out all the mesmerizing textures, moods, and explosive passion that makes Tchaikovsky so…Tchaikovsky. That would include the particularly authoritative resonance of the brass section and its dynamic interplay with the sweetly piercing warmth of the wind instruments. That warmth would in turn blossom into relentlessly increasing heat during the final movement. To call the finale “a lengthy coda” (as did Kenneth C. Viant in his very thorough program notes) is something of an understatement. This fourth movement is a phenomenon in itself, wherein cumulative orchestral crescendos are paraded like so many repeated aural exclamation points. Here, the orchestra rose to the occasion with unflagging energy throughout.

Considering how Tchaikovsky’s nerve-shattering struggle to complete his first symphony nearly drove him to clinical insanity, it’s not unreasonable to imagine how he might have wanted this triumphal climax to last something close to forever, propelling him into Allegro vivo Nirvana, so to speak. In any event, judging from the thunderous applause, this masterful and exuberant performance sufficiently warmed the hearts of the audience as they trudged into the cold Canton night.

Tom Wachunas