Symphony finishes masterworks series on high note

By Timothy Gaylard Special to The Roanoke Times

On Sunday afternoon the Roanoke Symphony, conducted by David Stewart Wiley, closed its regular masterworks series for an audience of about 1,400 at the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre. The program of two great symphonies from the 19th century provided a felicitous end to a very successful 60th anniversary season.

Concertmaster Akemi Takayama was also celebrating her 10th year of playing with the orchestra. To start the program, the orchestra presented a glowing rendition of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.”

In the first movement, Wiley elicited from his players a wide range of colors and emotions. From the opening hushed double bass line to the exquisitely soft string accompaniment to the evocative first theme played by solo oboe, through to the sensuous second theme in the cellos, the orchestra played superbly. When the sudden loud moments emerged in the full orchestra, they were suitably startling and effective.

The second movement was even more impressive in its range of magical sounds. The wind playing here was miraculous in large part to the artistry of Bill Parrish on oboe and Carmen Eby on the clarinet.

Wiley managed to keep the movement light, flowing and grand when necessary. When the movement ended, there was the special hush of an audience that knows it has heard a magnificent performance.

The second half of the concert was given over entirely to the lengthy Symphony No. 1 of Brahms. Wiley led a persuasive and architecturally well-proportioned account of the work. The first movement’s introduction was propulsive and not ponderous, leading into a finely wrought Allegro. The slow movement insinuated itself with a grace and beauty, capped off by an exquisite violin solo by Takayama. The subtleties of the third movement were highlighted again by the musical and sensitive woodwind playing.

But the last movement showed RSO can be proud of its strong string section. In the introduction, the strings were astounding in the tricky passage that begins very softly and gradually accelerates; the ensemble here was impeccable.

Later in the same section, the violins shimmered while the French horn intoned its alphorn melody. The famous main theme of the last movement was played with a stirring emotion and well-arched phrasing.

At the end of the performance, the orchestra was rewarded by a standing ovation which prompted an encore, just for the strings, of Johann Strauss’ delightful “Pizzicato Polka.”

Timothy Gaylard is professor of music at Washington and Lee University.