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W.Va. Symphony soars with Paulus concerto

By David Williams
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Minnesota Orchestra has fallen silent over the past year, victim of a bitter labor dispute between the orchestra's management and its musicians.In happier times, that orchestra has had a longstanding commitment to new music. Friday night, the West Virginia Symphony performed a piece composed for the Minnesota Orchestra's 100th anniversary year by Stephen Paulus, a composer long associated with the orchestra and who, along with Libby Larsen, is the most prominent composer from Minnesota not named Dominick Argento.Paulus' Concerto for Two Trumpets and Orchestra featured Vincent DiMartino, well-known locally for his long career at the University of Kentucky, and Rex Richardson, who famously made his first appearance in Charleston in the 1990s as a member of Rhythm and Brass at a concert in the Municipal Auditorium, in the middle of a ferocious snowstorm (I was one of about 100 people who made it to the concert).It is a delightful piece from start to finish. DiMartino and Richardson are performers of the first rank and they showed their limber phrasing, lilting tone quality and technical prowess throughout.The concerto offered soaring music in the opening movement, with the trumpets offset by muscular low strings and brass (few contemporary composers have the ear for trombone and tuba sounds that Paulus has).The substantial middle movement had slyly dissonant slips in the string harmonies, dramatic orchestral textures and interwoven trumpet melodies of great lyricism.
The finale was flinty and rhythmically bracing, with flurries of scales and leaping passages for the soloists. A missed high tone at the end by the top trumpet was the only slip of the performance.Conductor Grant Cooper's interpretation of Copland's magnificent "Appalachian Spring" seemed a little too reserved at times. His leisurely approach certainly worked well, even splendidly, in the quiet passages. And the orchestra's playing at the beginning had me thinking that no composer has written more beautiful music than that, ever.The faster dances that move the piece forward were clear-textured but lacking in energy. The culminating variations on "Simple Gifts" did have the right balance of lucid textures and rhythmic drive.The many solos for winds, brass and solo violin were played with distinction.Cooper drew alert playing and the orchestra discovered many beautiful details in a lovely performance of Debussy's Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun." The orchestra's bass section sounded particularly fine.Cooper's own setting of fiddle tunes and songs of West Virginia, called "On the Appalachian Trial," made for a pleasant close to the program. One might hope that he would explore some more diverse harmonies in his settings, but his touch with fiddle tunes makes them sparkle.The concert repeats Saturday at the Clay Center at 8 p.m.
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