RSO masterfully opens Masterworks season

By Timothy Gaylard, Special to The Roanoke Times

The Roanoke Symphony, conducted by David Stewart Wiley, on Sunday opened the 2014-15 Masterworks season for an audience of about 1,200 at the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre.

The program of Beethoven, Barber and Mahler, titled “In Nature’s Realm,” featured the famed American soprano Elizabeth Futral in two of the works.

To begin, the orchestra alone played Beethoven’s mighty “Egmont Overture.” Here, Wiley proved convincingly his complete understanding of the composer’s style. He elicited from his players a rich but clear sound, and incited them to play with rhythmic precision and energy.

Vitality and passion dominated this performance. The final measures of the work thundered triumphantly throughout the hall, emphasized by the powerful brass section and the perfectly placed roulades of the piccolo played by Julee Hickcox. Samuel Barber’s evocative “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” for soprano and orchestra, closed off the first half of the program. Futral brought to this work her considerable dramatic gifts as an opera singer. Her shimmering high notes were beautifully projected, whether in full voice or in silvery threads of pianissimo.

In a few places, her lower and middle voices registers were covered by the sound of the orchestra. The various colors demanded of Barber from the orchestral players, especially the winds and harp, were especially memorable in the numerous interludes, and the strings played with appropriate lushness and romanticism.

Wiley and Futral were effectively collaborative and communicative with their interpretation, so much so that, at the end of the piece, there was a magical moment of breathless silence before the audience applauded. Mahler’s hour-long Fourth Symphony made up the entire second half of the program.

Wiley threw his heart and soul into this multi-layered work, bringing forth the grace and schmaltz of the first movement, the sardonic humor of the second, the sustained tension of the third and the ethereal sweetness of the fourth.

In the latter, Futral was an ideal partner in conveying the child-like image of heaven, although one occasionally wished for a less womanly vocal sound and a more boyish quality. Still, the soprano effectively conveyed the meaning of every phrase both with her excellent declamation of text, her facial gestures and vast range of vocal dynamics.

Throughout the symphony, the orchestra provided both bombastic fortes and delicate pianos when called upon by the score. Special plaudits need to go out to the French horn solos of Wally Easter, the excellent wind section, the expertly controlled harp solos of Anastasia Jellison and, above all, the many assuredly played solos from concertmaster Akemi Takayama, who led the string section with great success.

At the very end of the symphony, there was once again a moment of exquisite silence before the audience gave a standing ovation.

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