Sitting in the seats at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts auditorium in Astoria, the boisterous, catchy tunes of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to West Side Story rang out. Crisp, clean, and excitedly performed, it was a great start to an evening of what Maestro Silas Nathaniel Huff called ‘Riffs and Dances’.
Driving home the theme of music propelled forward by the development of single melodic ideas, the Astoria Symphony Orchestra went on to perform rhythmically charged pieces by Barber, Tchaikovsky and Borodin.
Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto is demanding to say the least, and it’s not easy on the ear either. Yet soloist Emily Brausa achieved the sensitive balance that Barber’s music demands; she performed with both fire and warmth.
In the opening movement, Brausa attacked her cello with a series of double-stops, forceful strums and plucks, plus continuous, rapid movement up and down the neck of cello. But as the theme slowed down in the second movement, Brausa was accompanied by a low, quiet hum in the cello section of the orchestra. As the now relaxed syncopated theme radiated out from the stage, it felt so delicate that it required the support of the weighty, steady hum; without it, it felt as if the music would suddenly drop off and shatter to the floor. The effect was startlingly intimate. Navigating successfully between fierce, aggressive sounds and a brittle quality in the music attests to the sheer talent of Emily Brausa and the Astoria Symphony Orchestra.
In Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 2, also known as the ‘Little Russian’, the orchestra knit together various fragments of Tchaikovksy’s nostalgia. Inspired by his time spent at the Davidov estate near Kiev, Tchaikovsky’s second symphony is a true blend of Russian folk song and dance. Beginning with a solo horn, beckoning the Ukrainian folksong Down by the Mother Volga, the Orchestra wove its way through march-like tunes, spritely dances and dramatic processions. The Orchestra truly shone in the Scherzo when the melody raced forward in the strings as the flutes played wistfully atop them.
Joined by the Astoria Symphonic Choir in Aleksandr Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, the choir-orchestra combination projected remarkable energy. It was a shame that the choir was so difficult to hear, but with at least 110 musicians on stage, the dances were performed with exceptional vigor. There certainly was no need to hop the bridge Saturday night to hear great classical music.