RSO’s ‘Valentine Dreams’ showcases strings technique

By Tim Gaylard Special to The Roanoke Times

Maestro David Stewart Wiley conducted the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra in a program called “Valentine Dreams” in Shaftman Hall at Jefferson Center on Saturday night before an almost-full house of 650.

The orchestra was reduced in size, and featured mainly the string section in a varied and pleasant group of pieces. Most of the music showcased the marvelous musicianship and technique of the strings in the RSO.

Maestro Wiley arranged the strings a little differently in that the violas were out in front on the right side of the stage, with the cellos and basses more in the middle.

The evening began with a leisurely approach to Mozart’s First Symphony. The first movement contained a wide range of dynamics to enliven the repetitious phrases. The second movement conveyed a serious, almost mysterious mood, spoiled only by a few miscalculated tones of the French horns. The final movement, perhaps a little slower than the marked “Presto” tempo, was nevertheless both playful and precise.

Wiley then spoke to the audience briefly about the next two pieces, both written for the strings exclusively. George Walker’s “Lyric” was performed with an incredible range of soft dynamics, but swelled to an exciting climax in the middle. At the very end, Wiley elicited an exquisite fade that drew a magical hush from the audience.

To close out the first half of the concert, the strings gave a superb performance of Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” Here the players were arranged so that a group of nine strings sat near the back of the stage, forming an antiphonal “choir” to the group at the front. Two featured soloists were violist Thomas Stevens and violinist Akemi Takayama, who added to the soulful mood of the piece. Indeed, there was a pervasive religious atmosphere aided by the waves of sounds coming from different parts of the stage.

Intermission was long enough to allow Takayama to change from a black dress into a glamorous red one. Instead of the planned Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart, there was a last-minute change to his Violin Concerto No. 5, because of the indisposition of the originally scheduled guest violist.

Takayama played her instrument with natural ease and a sheer sense of enjoyment. In general, she caught the essence of Mozart’s style in all three movements, and Wiley gave her the necessary support.

The non-Mozartean cadenza for the first movement was played with virtuosic assurance; the slow movement had both flexibility and restraint. The main theme of the last movement had elegance and wit that contrasted with the spirited “Turkish” section, played by Takayama with energetic panache.

At the end of the concerto, the audience gave her a standing ovation to which she responded with a stunning rendition of Fritz Kreisler’s “Recitative and Scherzo-Caprice.”

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