Review of Southern Tier Symphony -- By Richard G. Frederick
The Southern Tier Symphony exultantly kicked off its 2008-2009
season before a packed house Saturday evening at the Olean High
School Auditorium. The program was decidedly modern, featuring
works of the 20th
Centuries. As the title “Made in America” suggests, the musical
evening was given over to American composers, including John
Whitney, the Symphony’s Music Director and Conductor, as well as his
late father, Maurice Whitney.
evening began with an audience rendition of “America the Beautiful,”
which Mr. Whitney promised would be echoed in the various works of
composers during the performance. The opening number by the symphony
provided one of the high points of a night of rarefied
entertainment, the world premiere of “Enchanted Mountain Fantasy,”
by Jacob Pleakis. An Olean native currently writing film scores in
New York City, Pleakis created the first piece ever commissioned by
the Southern Tier Symphony.
work opened quietly, with echoing sounds of wind swirling in the
morning, followed by the statement of the main theme moving back and
forth among the woodwinds, brass, and strings. It ended rather
cinematically, with what the composer described as “an exciting and
Pleakis was especially thrilled with the premiere occurring in his
hometown, and lauded the Southern Tier Symphony for their
“incredible” rendition of his work. He garnered two standing
ovations, one following the premiere performance, and the second at
the end of the evening when Mr. Whitney invited the composer to
conduct a reprise of the piece as an encore.
following two selections were highly entertaining, but served to
vary the program from its tumultuous beginning. Maurice Whitney’s
“Variations on a Theme By Handel” was light and whimsical, featuring
some fine clarinet/flute duet work as well as solos by the oboe and
brass players. John Lloyd’s “A Hectic Overture” lived up to its name
with a lively romp through the orchestra sections. I suspect this
one was as much fun to play as to listen to.
Whitney’s “Coming of Age,” a 2003 commissioned work, was next on the
program. The distinctive major theme raised thoughts of the Far
West. It was tuneful and big – what Mr. Whitney calls “power music.”
It was also full of surprises, such as “quotes” from well-known
pieces and eclectic sounds from instruments like the wood block.
final piece before intermission was also written by a local
composer, the Symphony’s timpanist, Moses Mark
Howden. In “Trek to
Gongga Shan,” Mr. Howden set out to demonstrate the merits of the
timpani as a solo instrument. One cannot help but be impressed by
his virtuosity on the large drums.
best known of the evening’s composers was featured after
intermission. Joan Tower’s “Made in America” was commissioned by 28
orchestras and performed in all 50 states within two years of its
premiere in 2005. Ms. Tower has artfully woven melodies from
“America the Beautiful” throughout her 13-minute work. The middle of
the piece included exciting, technically challenging, fast-paced
playing from all sections of the orchestra before ending on a
Beckel’s “The American Dream” was a brief and brassy piece meant for
popular entertainment. It succeeded.
“Sleep,” by Eric Whitacre brought on a chorus of about four dozen
high-schoolers from five local schools. They performed the beautiful
piece artfully, with the accompaniment of horns from the orchestra.
They remained for the final number, an arrangement by Maurice
Whitney entitled “From Sea to Shining Sea.” Following a rousing
ovation, the audience was once again thrilled by the encore as noted
Southern Tier Symphony, now in its sixth season, has developed
noticeably as a fine regional orchestra. Musicianship seems to have
steadily grown within, and Mr. Whitney has offered more challenging
pieces for the group’s audiences. He should also be lauded for his
efforts to interest young listeners in the symphony. In addition to
the choral feature, nine young musicians from Houghton College
entertained audience members with pre-concert music as they entered
the hall. Ably conducted by Brian Casey, the group performed
“Mouvements Perpetuels” by Francis Poulenc.
difficult to imagine a more varied and entertaining evening of good
music anywhere between Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
Southern Tier Symphony “Fabulous”
French Season Finale
The Southern Tier
Symphony, under the artistic direction of conductor/founder John
Whitney, triumphantly closed their fifth successful season this past
weekend with a program of audience accessible gems by French
composers entitled the “Fabulous French.” The first of their two
concerts was held on Saturday evening in the recently renovated
Wesley Chapel on the Houghton College main campus. This reviewer was
in attendance. The concert was repeated on Sunday afternoon in the
Olean High School Auditorium.
The program opened
with the Rakoczi March from The Damnation of Faust by Hector
Berlioz (1803-1869). Described by Dr. Robert Debbaut in the concert
program notes as an “orchestral tour de force in miniature,”
its powerful use of orchestral colors and sheer energy proved to be
the perfect opener for this enjoyable evening. The glitteringly
resonant string section and the punctuating brass especially served
up a wonderful “appetizer” for all that was to follow.
The Symphony in D
minor by Belgium born composer Cesar Franck (1822-1869), claimed by
the French as one of their own due to the fact that he was schooled
at the Paris Conservatory, is considered by many as his
masterwork. A standard in the orchestral repertoire, the chromatic
harmonies and unusual modulations pose their share of challenges to
any ensemble embarking on a performance of this magnificent work.
The performance was full of its intended Romantic drama as it was
masterfully interpreted by Maestro Whitney.
The Overture to
Orpheus in the Underworld by German born composer Jaccques
Offenbach (1819-1880), who was also schooled at the Paris
Conservatory, is from what is probably his most famous operetta.
Based upon a satire about Olympian gods, this light-hearted work is
always a delight for listeners of all generations. Among the most
outstanding moments was the lyrical violin solo performed by
concertmaster, Kim Whitney, as well as the exquisite cello solo
played brilliantly by principal cellist, Bryan
Eckenrode. Two other
individuals whose masterful, though less obvious, performances added
to the zest and richness of this delightful overture were timpanist,
Moses Mark Howden and Jim Caneen on tuba.
The final two pieces
on the program were the Pavane for a Dead Princess and the
classic Bolero, both by French impressionistic composer,
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Once again, Dr. Debbaut writes that
though the title of the Pavane “suggests a somber subject,
the work itself is rather wistful and airish, almost as if the
spirit of the princess is dancing before your eyes.” Adding to the
sensitive performance by the entire ensemble of this delicate
masterpiece were memorable passages played by principal flutist,
Julia Tunstall and harpist, Elizabeth Munch.
Bolero was an
exercise in instrumentation and sonority written during Ravel’s
student years at the Paris Conservatory. A full seventeen minutes
in duration, it is based upon a Spanish dance form and consists of a
single theme passed amongst the instruments of the orchestra, as a
snare drum relentlessly punctuates the bolero rhythm.
Percussionist, Paul Haag deserves individual recognition for his
steady and extraordinarily precise snare drum performance throughout
the entire duration of the work. This audience favorite gradually
built to a tumultuous finale and an exultant climax to this
The Southern Tier
Symphony continues to be one of the treasures of our region for
which area residents should be exceedingly proud and supportive.
This reviewer hopes their presence will be heard on our various
concert stages for a great many years to come.
- Gary Stith, reviewer
(email concert reviewer at firstname.lastname@example.org)