Opening Night with a World Premiere Inspired by Mozart

United StatesUnited States Benjamin, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Dvořák: Sara Davis Buechner (piano),  Canton Symphony Orchestra/Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio. 1.10.2016. (TW)

Eric BenjaminAn Occasional Overture (CSO commission-world premiere)
Mozart – Overture to Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)
RachmaninoffRhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Dvořák – Symphony No.9 in E minor, ‘From the New World’

Last year, Canton Symphony Orchestra concertgoers were given a list of three works from which to choose for this season’s opening program, titled “You Asked For It!” As CSO Music Director Gerhardt Zimmermann reminded the audience at the beginning of the evening, voters chose well. In addition, Zimmermann asked his colleague, Eric Benjamin, to compose a new work for the occasion.

In his program notes for the world premiere of his Occasional Overture, Benjamin wrote that he was inspired by Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro: “… this little moto perpetuo that scurries, fizzes, explodes, dazzles, charms and does not overstay.” Those words are a fitting description of Benjamin’s aural titillations, which he realized in grand fashion. The short work (which could have stayed a bit longer) is a glittering reverie of orchestral colors and textures which—with spicy variations in melody, rhythms, and tempi—delightfully dismantles the time-honored sonata form. Complex but seamless, it tickles and teases, imparting the wondrous sensation of soaring through an enchanted kingdom.

Interestingly, Mr. Benjamin’s adventurous piece was an effective prelude to what followed: Mozart’s overture to Die Zauberflöte. Not surprisingly, the orchestra navigated its mix of comical and dramatic developments with sparkling fluidity.

The evening’s centerpiece was a soul-stirring Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Rachmaninoff, with guest pianist Sara Davis Buechner. If Rachmaninoff is a language, then Buechner speaks it with riveting authority and remarkable tonal warmth.

At times her animated style exhibited the lilting finesse of a ballet dancer—at others the ferocity of an impassioned orator. Time seemed to stand still during Variation 7, the ‘Dies Irae,’ when her thunderous playing exuded delectable solemnity. When the breathtaking Variation 18 began, one noted Buechner’s swaying posture, the weightlessness of her hands, and her look of ecstasy—spellbinding. Through the electrifying final section, her virtuosity was never gratuitous, but always purposeful and emotionally gripping.

After an exuberant standing ovation, Buechner returned and dedicated an encore to Maestro Zimmermann. She poured herself into a poignant version of Gershwin’s The Man I Love.

In Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony, there was nothing forced or frenetic about Zimmermann’s deportment. With only the subtlest of hand movements, or a slight tilt of his head, he elicited astonishing articulations from the ensemble—the fierceness of percussion and brass, the ravishing winds, the palpable warmth and depth of the strings. It was a splendid reading. The Largo was especially engaging, driven by that noble English horn melody (later to become the well-known spiritual, Going Home), and played with heartrending clarity by Cynthia Warren.

Under Zimmermann’s astute direction, Dvořák was a perfect choice to show the CSO’s ability to balance grace with muscularity, and lyricism with power.

Tom Wachunas

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