The Sinfonia da Camera came back to Foellinger Great Hall on Oct 16, and for this special occasion, music director Ian Hobson, displayed his double talents as pianist and conductor in a dazzling performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”
The Foellinger Great Hall balcony, where I usually sit, is closed for alteration right now, so downstairs, my aural and visual perspective has changed. There, the strings of the Sinfonia stand out more in sound level, and the spatial positioning of the orchestral groups is more noticeable. But the sight lines are more restricted. I miss seeing the woodwinds and brass at their work.
The concert opened with Sir Edward Elgar’s 1901 “Cockaigne Overture,” his musical tribute to the denizens of London, described by him as “Stout and steaky ... honest, healthy, humorous, and strong, but not vulgar.” Elgar’s overture ambles along, in good humored cockiness, stopping at times to smell a musical rose or two, until, about halfway through, Elgar builds to a magnificently jaunty tune, which the orchestra vigorously pummels. Hobson and the Sinfonia brought out the uplifting moments of this piece with good humored flair.
Little did Niccolò Paganini suspect that the 24th and last of the “Caprices” of his Opus 1 would be chosen by many composers as a subject for variations. Rachmaninoff chose it for his “Rhapsody on the Theme of Paganini,” which contains 24 variations. This 1934 work was composed at a time when the composer, then 61, had been written off as old-fashioned and out of fresh ideas. How wrong they were!
This work sparkles with brilliant wit, and the repeated allusions to the medieval hymn “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”) increases the devil-may-care spirit of most of the variations. All the more impressive, among Rachmaninoff’s piano fireworks, is the appearance of the 18th variation, probably the most beautiful and beloved 3 minutes of Rachmaninoff’s music.
Hobson, seated at the lidless grand piano, with his back to the audience, played with awe-inspiring brilliance, and the orchestra responded to his eloquent gestures with admirable ensemble dash and sparkle. After Rachmaninoff’s droll prat-fall end, the audience rose to grant Hobson and the Sinfonia an ovation.
The concert ended with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It was my second hearing of this monumental work within a month, but such is its splendors that I felt no hint of excess in rehearing it. This work is especially famous for its grandiose exclamations of triumph, and Hobson and the Sinfonia’s reading did indeed rise to the uplands of sublimity. But Beethoven’s great work is also full of smaller effects, of little strokes of genius, especially from bassoon, clarinet, oboe and piccolo, and these details shone bright in a performance which, at its end, brought the audience to their feet a second time.
This concert was dedicated to the memory of Jean Henderson Osborn, who died June 20. She, with her husband, Howard, had been outstanding supporters of especially chamber music in our concert halls.
Jean once wrote to me at WILL-FM, thanking me for playing a recording of the song “The Blue Bird of Happiness,” sung by Jan Peerce. It reminded her of her college days, when a local radio station used to sign off at midnight as Jan Peerce assured its listeners that “Life is no abyss / Somewhere there’s a bluebird of happiness.”