Roanoke Symphony Orchestra review: Clarinet piece was rare jewel

The following review by appeared in the January 26, 2010 edition of the Roanoke Times.

There was plenty to like in Monday night’s Roanoke Symphony Orchestra concert at the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre.

But the Virginia premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s magnificent new clarinet concerto outshone everything else.

When it came to superlatives, soloist Jon Manasse’s splendid performance pretty much sucked all the oxygen out of the room, leaving little to say about the Gershwin, Dvorak and Mozart works, any of which on another night might have been the centerpiece of a program.

Yes, Maestro David Stewart Wiley presided over finely calibrated crescendi in the overture to Mozart’s opera “The Marriage of Figaro.” The Dvorak Symphony No. 8 in G Major was artfully shaped and soulfully played. And George Gershwin’s little “Lullaby for Strings” was as likeable as ever.

But when the Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op. 110, by American composer Liebermann cruised to a breathless finish and the standing ovation and shouts of bravo were echoing through the hall, it seemed clear that we had heard a piece that will remain in the repertoire for decades to come.

But it will always take a player of Manasse’s caliber to do justice to Liebermann’s work. The occasional gifted amateur may strike out into the deep waters of the Mozart clarinet concerto. But no amateur can handle the Liebermann piece. This bravura work requires not merely a professional player, but a virtuoso.

It is lyrically gorgeous, full of ravishing tunes from the opening whole-tone scales to the perpetual motion finale. The orchestra is called upon to provide a wash of ethereal textures with high bells and delicate woodwind effects.

It’s difficult to pick out peak moments. But the entire middle slow movement, with its sinuous, long-breathed melodies that take unexpected chromatic turns, was breathtaking. Manasse’s technical mastery was obvious enough in the rapid passage work. But the pianissimo passages in the instrument’s very highest tessitura, with intonation that was dead-on perfect, were extraordinarily lovely. Manasse deserved every bit of adulation he got at the end of this piece.

As a final gift to the audience, the RSO performed the Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 to yet more shouts of approval.

by Seth Williamson