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W.Va. Symphony explores the drama of old Vienna

By David Williams
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Conductor Grant Cooper is, for all the precision he brings to his conducting, an emotionalist, using his considerable technique to probe the expressive depths of music.At the Clay Center Friday night, the West Virginia Symphony explored tragic works by Mozart, Wagner and Brahms before a crowd limited by the snowy weather.Mozart's Requiem, in its version by Franz Baier, featured the combined choruses of the orchestra and Marshall University, both prepared by its conductor, David Castleberry, along with soprano Janet Brown, mezzo soprano Mariel van Dalsum, tenor Gerald Gray and baritone Timothy LeFebvre.The piece is a serious challenge to a conductor.The scoring is mostly opaque, probably because of someone other than Mozart completing it but maybe because of its retro, quasi-baroque textures.Cooper struck apt balances between the choral forces and the classical-sized orchestra of reduced strings, basset horns (an alto-ranged clarinet), bassoons, trumpets, timpani and a trio of trombones.The chorus was inspired throughout -- one is tempted to say that Marshall's athletic teams should be this good. The fugue of the Kyrie had clean lines and vocal substance. The Dies Irae was dramatic and powerful while the Confutate maledictus showed that Cooper could draw lyrical singing from the chorus suspended over churning rhythmic tension.The soloists were fine.Brown, a longtime collaborator with Cooper, has an intimate way with phrasing, drawing the listener easily into the work's opening Requiem aeternam.The vocal quartet sang with excellent blend and expressiveness in the Tuba mirum. LeFebvre was a bit grainy sounding at the start but sounded less forced as he sang on. Gray showed gentle warmth in the upper range while van Dalsum and Brown sang limpidly.
David Parilla was masterful in the famous trombone solo.The feud between supporters of Wagner and Brahms that raged across late 19th-century Vienna does not need a retrospective in the 21st century.Cooper's contrasting of the Prelude to Act III of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" and Brahms' "Tragic Overture" might have passed for innovative programming in 1920 but seems dated today.I can't complain about the way the pieces were played, though. The Wagner had richness in the strings, darkness from the low ranges and a fragile elegance from the first and second violins in the yearning passage that climbs into the fading musical twilight.
R. Stutzman's English horn solo, played from a side balcony, haunted with its flowing line interrupted by a couple of separated notes.Brahms was very good in things that let him play against the traditions he was so determined to extend.So the outer movements of his symphonies, which hold to Beethovenian ideals, are inspired.The inner movements, when he went his own way, are often pure genius.The "Tragic Overture" is as inspired as any of his middle movement work, taking unexpected turns and reveling in shifting textures.Cooper led a masterful performance, drawing cohesive playing from the strings, which the winds braced with warm passagework and graceful melodies. The horns and brass were pertinently colorful.
The concert repeats Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Clay Center.
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