Concert review: Roanoke Symphony captures community

By Timothy Gaylard, Special to The Roanoke Times
The Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Stewart Wiley, continued to celebrate in grand style with a concert Monday night before a crowd of 1,600 people at the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre. Before the concert began, members from the Virginia House of Delegates presented a Joint Resolution from the General Assembly congratulating the orchestra on its 60th anniversary season. Wiley then ascended the podium to conduct the world premiere of Steve Brown’s “Blue Ridge Rhapsody.”

This appealing work fell into three parts emphasizing in turn different aspects of the community: the bustling activity, the religious faith and the mountain music tradition. An arching tune played on the euphonium, to honor radio personality Seth Williamson, was sensitively played by Jay Crone.

This was followed by an inspired set of variations on the folk hymn “How Firm a Foundation.” To cap it all off, the basses and cellos provided a vital rhythmic pizzicato support to the virtuosic “country fiddling” of Elise Blake.

The rest of the string section then joined in the merrymaking. This all led to a rousing conclusion cleverly combining all three main melodies of the piece, and drawing attention to all the varied colors of the orchestra.

To close off the first half of the concert, the orchestra played the “1919 Suite” from “The Firebird” ballet of Igor Stravinsky. The various movements of this suite demand the utmost of a symphony orchestra, and here the RSO rose admirably to the challenge.

Wiley was especially effective in bringing the orchestra down to the quiet moments, where one could feel the anticipatory hush in the audience before the explosions of rich sounds. Particular commendation should go to the evocative and beautifully played solos of Sue Barber on the bassoon and Bill Parrish on the oboe.

The second half of the program was devoted entirely to the cantata by Sergei Prokofiev based on the score he wrote for the epic film “Alexander Nevsky.” A huge choral ensemble consisting of the Liberty University Concert Choir, the Roanoke Symphony Chorus, the Southern Virginia University Concert Chorale, and members of both the Oratorio Society of Virginia and the UVa University Singers joined the orchestra in this mighty work.

Here Wiley brought out the very best from his orchestra, whether it was in the loud climactic moments or the eerie soft patches. The famous “Battle on Ice” was especially well played, conjuring up the images of war, winter and defeat. The theatrical entrance and exit of mezzo-soprano Tara Bouknight for her one solo added to the poignancy of her finely etched vocal expression.

The choruses sang in a full, clean and powerful sound combining with the orchestra to bring the cantata to a thrilling ending, prompting an immediate standing ovation from the audience. As a surprise encore, and as a tribute St. Patrick’s Day, the strings, with the chorus humming, performed a ravishing version of “Danny Boy.”

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