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Review: A premiere, 'The Planets' and 'Death’s Dance' with the WV Symphony

WV Symphony

The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

Premiere performances have been relatively rare with the West Virginia Symphony in its series of symphonic concerts. After he arrived in 2001, former conductor Grant Cooper led premieres of several of his works. He included works by John Beall, Matt Jackfert and me over the years. Both Beall and I had been commissioned by the orchestra, before Cooper’s arrival, to compose pieces for the opening of the Clay Center. Steve Cohen had a premier performance in 2004 when he won a contest that the orchestra held.

On Saturday night at the Clay Center, music director Lawrence Loh led the orchestra in the premiere performance of Theodore Wiprud’s “Sinfonietta.” The local orchestra commissioned the piece along with the South Dakota Symphony. Wiprud, born in 1958, is the vice president of education for the New York Philharmonic.

The first movement, “Awakening,” opened with a bass drum roll and a rattle of tam-tam before the horns essayed a fanfare that was echoed by the other areas of the orchestra. Each echo ended with a falling glissando in strings.

A twittering duet for alto flute and clarinet, played ably by Amelia Dicks and principal clarinetist Robert Turizziani, led to echoing calls by flute, bassoon and oboe. A bit of plaintive oboe from Lorraine Dorsey led to the horns and their fanfares, but quietly. A duet for Lindsey Goodman’s flute and Dicks’ alto flute led to a return of the opening percussion ideas.

“Planets Dance” featured aggressive trumpets and percussion in insistent rhythms leading to a bracing trombone solo by Chris Dearth. Blistering harmonies led to a climax that dissipated in fading glissandos in the harp.

“Tuned with Love” had a shimmer of metal percussion instruments in support of a searching flute solo (Goodman again). The strings took up the idea with each section playing overlapping melodies. A striking ending had low oboe, trombones and tuba with hushed strings and that bit of percussion shimmer.

“The Lantern” included little duets that hopped from trumpets to percussion and on before an athletic passage for the basses led to a massive climax.

“Tal Nori” was based on Korean traditional music. Unison woodwinds with percussion thumps led to a slow dance with oboe and bassoon in duet. That dance grew more and more ferocious with clanging layers of percussion, powerful brass and a Christopher Rouse-like clamor.

The piece was always interesting. Wiprud shifted instrumental combinations effortlessly and chose fresh sounds and unusual combinations. The percussion shimmer of the middle movement, “Tuned with Love,” sounds a bit long in the tooth, since effects like that have dominated percussion writing since George Crumb.

Many times his choices in harmony were striking.

The last movement, with its Korean borrowings, reminded of Crumb’s music with its cross-cutting of short ideas, drones and single-line textures.

West Virginia-based pianist Barbara Nissman is a master of early-Romantic-era piano music. She joined the orchestra for Liszt’s “Totentanz” (Death Dance, 1849), a piece based on the famous Dies Irae chant that had been used by Berlioz in the finale of his “Symphonie fantastique” (1829).

She was her usual electrifying presence playing with powerful tone and precise rhythm.

The couple of quiet passages that provide relief from the torrents of sound Liszt requires were perfect in grace and lyricism.

Liszt is hard but easy to play badly with empty thunder. Nissman’s genius is the ability to play Liszt and make it sound spontaneous, as if the great composer/pianist’s ideas had just arrived from beyond the grave. She then shapes melodies and harmonies into a continuous narrative laden with meaning, even when the technical challenges are almost laughably difficult.

Loh and the orchestra matched her with insight and the requisite power, when needed.

The orchestra concluded the program with a ravishing account of Holst’s “The Planets.” Loh etched precise rhythm and the players responded with richly colored tone and beautifully shaped melodies.

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