MasterWorks season closes on a high note

April 20, 2006|by ELIZABETH SCHULZE

The Maryland Symphony Orchestra's 24th season of MasterWorks programs comes to a close this weekend on a high note.

Our guest artist, violinist Jennifer Frautschi, is a star on the rise, whose artistry is of the highest order. She joins the orchestra to play Camille Saint-Sans' Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor.

This concerto captures the essence of the violin's dual nature of singing sweetness and pyrotechnic virtuosity. Written for the most famous violinist of the day, Pablo de Sarasate, Saint-Sans sought to exploit the many facets of the player's style.

Each of the concerto's three movements presents the soloist in a different light. The first movement, in traditional sonata form, presents a hero in all his (or her) declamatory passion. The second, written to evoke a baroque aria, or sicilienne, dresses the instrument in the garb of a troubadour. The third movement offers the most variety, with three distinct themes - a brilliant dance and two melodies, one sounding almost patriotic, the other hymn-like. Saint-Sans covered all the bases with this concerto that continues to please audiences to the present day.


The orchestra dances on its own for the rest of the program, opening with a fox trot by Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer John Harbison. Harbison's long fascination with F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" resulted in his opera of the same title, finished in 1999, and a short work, "Remembering Gatsby: Fox Trot for Orchestra," written some thirteen years earlier. This orchestral dance evokes flappers, smoke-filled dance halls and all that jazz. Harbison brilliantly captures both the frivolous and the tragic in a mere six and a half minutes.

The final work on the program is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances" was the composer's last major composition and he seemed to pour into it all of his experience as a master of his art and also as a man living in fast-changing and tragic times.

In 1940, with a world at war, Rachnaninoff's youngest daughter was trapped in France while he and his wife were safely ensconced as guests at an estate on Long Island. In "Symphonic Dances," the music of unease threatens to overcome the lush expanses of elegant grace and heroic exultation. Known for his melodies (some were even made into popular hit songs), Rachmaninoff instead focused on rhythm, the essence of the dance, as the driving force of this three-movement work.

After its completion, the composer thought to name each movement for the three periods of the day, or the three ages of man. Rachmaninoff decided against any programmatic designation, thus allowing the listener to encounter the music in its own right and on its own terms.

When it was first heard in Philadelphia, "Symphonic Dances" found unsympathetic ears in the critics. Too old-fashioned for sophisticated modernists, at the same time the work was found lacking in signature melodic content by traditionalists. The audience however, much to the consternation of the critics, jammed the concert hall and loudly voiced their approval.

Elizabeth Schulze is music director and conductor of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra.

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