By Timothy Gaylard, Special To The Roanoke Times (November 10, 2014)
The Roanoke Symphony, conducted by David Stewart Wiley, continued the Masterworks Season at Jefferson Center with a program titled “Beethoven & Midkiff Pastorale.”
The works, which could have been subtitled “country music comes into the concert hall,” were performed for a full house of 900 on Sunday afternoon, and a good-sized crowd of 660 on Monday night. The concert began with Bizet’s boisterous “Farandole” from his L’Arlesienne Suite.
Here Wiley applied his energetic baton to a lively and exciting account of this classic French work, inspired by Provencal song and dance. The orchestra responded with precision and spirit. The rest of the first half of the concert was devoted to a newly commissioned Double Concerto for Mandolin, Violin & Orchestra by Jeff Midkiff, a local bluegrass musician who has made numerous professional recordings.
This highly attractive piece featured the talents of Akemi Takayama, the concertmaster of the RSO, and Midkiff himself as solo mandolin player. Consisting of four contrasting movements, the concerto vividly creates a wonderful melding of bluegrass and classical sounds. Takayama threw herself into the role of a country fiddler with incredible technique and Midkiff displayed considerable skill on his instrument.
The work contains a wealth of appealing melodies, snappy rhythms, harmonic shifts, occasionally pungent dissonances and interesting orchestral colors The very beautiful slow third movement provided a welcome respite from the hectic movements around it. In this piece Midkiff revealed a personal and reflective side, and Takayama was able to show off her wondrous control of soft, sustained high notes on the violin.
The last movement, which Wiley led with clearly joyous gusto, featured a fast and lively spirit of the hoedown, somewhat reminiscent of Copland; the virtuosity of both soloists was dazzling. At the end of Concerto, the audience erupted with rousing applause and a spontaneous standing ovation.
As a quick encore, Wiley announced a short piece by Midkiff called “Run For Your Life,” which once again brought the spirit of the Roanoke Valley with high-powered playing into the concert hall and mightily uplifted the spirits of all present. The entire second half of the program was given over to Beethoven’s enduring “Pastoral Symphony.”
Here, not all the notes were played perfectly, nor in tune, but the exultation in nature was evident and Wiley directed a sensitive and elastic performance. The frightening outburst of thunder and lightening of the “Tempest” movement came off particularly well. The most impressive playing came from the orchestra’s star wind soloists — Bill Parrish on oboe, Carmen Eby on clarinet and Alycia Hugo on flute, although occasionally they were overpowered by other sections of the orchestra. All in all, it was a performance that presented a varied group of pieces, cleverly related by theme, and played with warm enthusiasm.
Timothy Gaylard is professor of music at Washington and Lee University.