Homage to Vienna, Reverent and Raucous

United StatesUnited States Von Suppé, Schubert, Johann Strauss Jr., Johann Strauss Sr., Josef Strauss: Canton Symphony Orchestra/Gerhardt Zimmermann, Rachel Waddell (conductors), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, 28.1.2017. (TW)

Von Suppé: Overture to Pique Dame (Queen of Spades)

Schubert: Symphony No.8 in B minor (Unfinished)

Johann Strauss, Jr.: Overture to Zigeunerbaron (Gypsy Baron); Unter Donner und Blitz (Thunder and Lightning Polka); Vergnϋgungszug (Pleasure Train Polka); Kaiser-Walzer (Emperor Waltz)

Josef Strauss: Jockey Polka

Johann Strauss, Sr.: Piefke und Pufke Polka

On one level, this concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra, billed as “A Night in Vienna,” was a dazzling homage to Strauss family waltzes and polkas. But on another, it was an occasion for some memorable shenanigans on the part of Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann.

The evening commenced with the overture from Pique Dame (Queen of Spades), an adventurous love story in two acts by Franz von Suppé, who had emerged as the preeminent champion of the Viennese operetta by the late 19th century. The overture is a cunning romp through both comical and mysterious musical episodes, interwoven with a sparkling flute melody. Toward the end, tension built and gave way to a jocular evocation of galloping at ever increasing speeds, leaving the audience in breathless wonder. The orchestra’s impish and ebullient energy was a harbinger of titillating things yet to come, but not before a complete change of pace and mood ensued.

A far cry from the exuberance and velocity of Pique Dame, the performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (Unfinished) was nonetheless utterly mesmerizing. Schubert’s work presents some of the most achingly beautiful melodies in the symphonic tradition, and it’s fitting that an aura of warmth seemed to settle over the orchestra, with extraordinary reverence for emotive impact. Riveting in its tonal nuances, the ensemble successfully articulated all the composer’s drama, evoking a spirit at once fiercely noble and melancholy.

Unfettered joie de vivre returned in the second half. Rachel Waddell, CSO Associate Conductor, led the group through the many thematic twists and turns of the overture to Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron) by Johann Strauss, Jr. Lushly orchestrated, this bubbly stew of gypsy tunes and Viennese waltzes made a perfect vehicle for Waddell’s animated conducting style. Yet far from being extraneous or distracting, her demeanor was wholly appropriate. She often leaned into the ensemble, swaying left and right, her arms sweeping the air in wide, pulsing arcs. Even her fingers were expressive, tickling the orchestra into an exhilarating response.

Zimmermann returned to the podium for the evening’s remaining  selections of polkas and waltzes. Not surprisingly, the caliber of CSO artistry was unimpeachable. Most memorable, though, was watching the Maestro morph into the Minister of Mischief. His podium attitude was often so casual that he wasn’t really conducting, but mugging to the audience while engaging in incidental activities.

During Unter Donner und Blitz (Thunder and Lightning Polka) by Johann Jr., for example, he opened an umbrella after being spritzed with water by cellist Michael Kosko. For Josef Strauss’s Jockey Polka, which he dedicated “to those enrolled in Gamblers Anonymous,” Zimmermann was the soloist, adding the rhythmic, percussive sound effects of the jockey’s whip right on cue. And the crowd-pleasing antics didn’t stop there.

After a magnificent Johann Jr.’s Kaiser-Walzer (Emperor Walzes), the orchestra was equally inspiring in an encore of the composer’s An der schönen blauen Donau (By the Beautiful Blue Danube). For the Champagne Polka, Kosko again approached the podium to pour champagne for himself, concertmaster Vivek Jayaraman, and a delighted (and apparently very thirsty) Zimmermann, who in turn offered a glass to an audience member in the front row.

Closing out the proceedings, Zimmermann stirred up the house with the gleeful clap-along of Johann Strauss Sr.’s Radetzky March. In the end, while the champagne may have been the cheap stuff, the evening was top-of-the line fun, and a rich celebration of the Strauss legacy.

Tom Wachunas

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