RSO opens 65th season with hypnotic energy, thrilling moments

By Tim Gaylard Special to The Roanoke Times

The Roanoke Symphony Orchestra opened its Masterworks Series on Saturday night under the baton of David Stewart Wiley at the Berglund Performing Arts Theatre before a crowd of about 1,000.

Spanish guitarist and composer Juan Nicolau was the featured soloist. The program included symphonic works by de Falla and Dvorak. The full orchestra started the first concert of its 65th season with an exciting performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Spanish theme of the first half of the concert was initiated by de Falla’s famous “Ritual Fire Dance” from his “El Amor Brujo.” Here a hypnotic energy was well established from the opening by the cello trills and flourishes. Wiley drew out of all his players a vibrant and rhythmically precise rendition of this colorful piece.

Nicolau then came out to perform the Virginia premiere of his “In the Mariola Mountains,” a delightful guitar concerto with programmatic inspirations. The piece has three movements in the fast-slow-fast plan of the traditional concerto. Surely grounded in a neo-Romantic style, the concerto is immensely appealing due to a vitality and richness that indicate the Spanish background of the composer. Nicolau is not only a capable writer of music but also a highly proficient guitar player. In the first movement, he established a rapport with the audience with a highly expressive performance that matched his considerable technique. The second movement is the heart of the work, with its haunting main theme and soaring violin melodies, making it a worthy competitor to the slow movement from Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” The storyline behind the third movement’s highly contrasting episodes was vividly apparent, and Nicolau displayed an arsenal of mesmerizing effects, playing in all ranges of his instrument. At the conclusion, the audience justifiably gave him a warm reception and a standing ovation.

After intermission, the RSO played Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. Here, Wiley elicited very fine playing from the orchestra; he clearly has a great understanding of the work and made strong emotional statements through careful manipulation of tempo, volume and color. The woodwind section was stellar, most notably in the slow movement’s evocations of the Czech countryside. The cello section was especially impressive in its forceful statements of the main themes in the first and last movements. Violinist Akemi Takayama as concertmaster was alert to Wiley’s every nuance, and she provided a gorgeous solo in the slow movement, channeling the sounds of a Bohemian fiddler. At big climaxes, the brass section came to the fore, providing thrilling moments. After the exuberant finale, the audience gave a standing ovation to which Wiley responded by leading a humorous performance of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5.

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