Concert review: RSO's season debut rooted in Appalachia

Concert review: RSO’s season debut rooted in Appalachia 

By Kevin Kittredge, Special to The Roanoke Times

The Roanoke Symphony Orchestra and music director David Stewart Wiley kicked off their 2011-2012 season at the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre on Monday night with a crowd-pleasing program that featured a distinct American theme.

The bill included Leonard Bernstein’s overture to “Candide” and the ever-popular “New World Symphony” by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, written on a visit to America in the 1890s. The audience of more than 1,600 even got into the act, singing along with the RSO’s opening rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The highlight of the evening, however, was surely the world premiere of a concerto for mandolin and orchestra written by Roanoke’s own Jeff Midkiff. Midkiff, a local educator and clarinetist, is also a virtuoso mandolin player. His concerto, “From the Blue Ridge,” was commissioned by the RSO.

Blending elements of multiple genres and including lyrical solos on the piccolo and bassoon, the 18-minute concerto was a long way from “Rocky Top.” Midkiff himself played the mandolin, switching from percussive rhythm work to do dazzling solo runs, in the process expanding this listener’s knowledge of what a mandolin could do, and be. There were times when it sounded more like Flamenco guitar than a bluegrass instrument. The last movement, aptly titled “The Crooked Road,” was where Midkiff showed his Appalachian roots. In one memorable passage, Midkiff and concertmaster Akemi Takayama played a searing bluegrass duet that would have drawn hoots and cheers in less august surroundings. This audience reserved the hollerin’ for the end of the piece, which got a standing ovation.

Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 is one of the world’s best-loved orchestral pieces. The composer was a little vague on whether its fetching melodies were based on African-American or Native American roots, and some feel they draw mostly from his native Bohemia. Either way, it’s an early statement about the power of America’s polyglot culture that still resonates today.

The RSO did the piece justice. The ravishing English horn melody in the slow movement, played here by William Parrish, was enough to bring tears to the eye. Some of the more boisterous parts lacked punch in this difficult room, however, especially in the right loge — despite the fact the RSO had placed its horn players up on risers. But the strings had a warm, buttery sound up there, lovely to hear. All in all, it was a satisfying night, and a powerful argument for keeping Wiley, now in his 16th season, around forever.