Saturday’s WPS Triumph

From: John McDaniel
To: [email protected]
Date: Tue, Apr 28, 2015 at 11:47 AM
Subject: Saturday’s WPS triumph

Saturday’s performance in the LRU P.E. Monroe Auditorium of the Mahler 2nd “Resurrection” Symphony by the Western Piedmont Symphony and Hickory Choral Society was a stunning achievement.

Over the past 28 years I’ve frequently made the trip from Northern Virginia to Hickory to take in a concert by one or the other or both, and have rarely been disappointed. But I have never been as thrilled or moved by another performance of this or any other piece of music as I was Saturday night.

Since my father introduced me to Mahler’s 2nd in the late 1960s, I’ve probably listened to the symphony more than 100 times on vinyl, tape, and disc. Twice before I’d experienced it live: a muscular performance by the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall under the baton of Sir Georg Solti, and an ethereal interpretation by Leonard Bernstein who, near the end of his celebrated career, directed the Vienna Philharmonic in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall while I was in graduate school in Washington.

Both of those performances were memorable, but neither had the passion, the energy, the emotional impact of what John Gordon Ross achieved with his fine and enormous ensemble Saturday night. The accomplished WPS–supplemented by many additional excellent musicians for this expansive work–was sharp on the attack and viscerally powerful when required, but also capable of a breathtaking light and tender touch. Thanks in large part, I’m sure, to maestro Ross’ preparation and control, the orchestra proved itself up to the challenge of both the full and the delicate intensity required to do justice to Mahler’s alternately dense and open scoring. Especially notable were quiet passages immediately following numbing crescendos. A few of those made what little hair I have left on the top of my head stand straight up.

P.E. Monroe Auditorium itself was a star contributor, at least to this listener. I was concerned that my Row G seat would put me too far forward to fully appreciate the best blended sound. But whether it was the excellent reflective panels on stage, or just the open nature of the scoring of much of the symphony, the sound that reached my ears was clear and glorious.

The soloists, soprano Louise Toppin and contralto Diane Thornton, also were excellent, both weaving their strong voices into the rich musical tapestry in a way that was clear without standing too far apart from the whole. Thornton in particular, I thought, did an amazing job from her first entry of projecting her voice even as she held back the decibels. I’ve heard too many divas (or recording engineers?) fail to achieve this restraint.

The solution to the problem of where to place the Hickory Choral Society, when the stage was already overcrowded, was itself masterful. Initially singing the quiet “Auferstehung” from their seats in the front-right section of the auditorium, the singers then rose and turned to face the rest of the audience as their contribution to the building power of the final movement intensified. To me, this had an even more powerful impact than had they been sitting on risers behind the orchestra throughout the performance. The effect was similarly involving of the audience as is the Personent Hodie with which the HCS traditionally opens its Christmas Concert. The HCS had been prepared for their important, if few, minutes of action Saturday night to the typical high standard that has come to be expected of them and their director, Don Coleman, who I’ve known since he directed me in chorus and Varsity Singers at Hickory High School in 1971/72, still, along with the regrettably few years (1985-87) I was in the HCS, among the happiest memories of my life.

I can’t complete this enthusiastic review without adding how much I wish my father, Dr, Michael C. D. McDaniel, had lived long enough to experience what those of us who were there experienced Saturday night. He loved LR, the Hickory community, the WPS, the HCS, and Mahler more than anyone else I know (with the possible exception, in the case of Mahler, of Bruno Walter). For a time, he offered talks in front of the fireplace in the Cromer Center before WPS concerts, discussing with scholarship and humor what was both well and little known about the composers and their works being performed that evening. He would have been as thrilled as I was, and offered many more calls of “bravo” than I had the energy to offer after such a fulfilling, yet emotionally and physically draining, experience. I did have the great pleasure of sharing it with my mother, Marjorie, who purchased my ticket and without whom I wouldn’t even have known about the event.

A final word of thanks needs to be given to the sponsors and to the board members, such as my friend Bill Karslake, who worked so hard to make sure Hickory could be the site of such a once-in-a-lifetime event. Thanks to you all!

Looking forward to many more uplifting concerts,

John R. M. McDaniel

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