This Virginia Symphony concert of American and Russian music certainly delivered variety, starting with Charles Tomlinson Griffes' The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. Griffes belongs to the generation of American composers whose musical aesthetics sprang from the European tradition rather than the overtly “American” style of the generation that followed. Although he studied in Germany, Griffes was unique among his compatriots in that he was drawn to the musical impressionism of France. It’s on full display in Kubla Khan, a tone picture from 1919 inspired by Samuel Taylor-Coleridge’s opium-induced poetry.

JoAnn Falletta © Cheryl Gorski
JoAnn Falletta
© Cheryl Gorski

JoAnn Falletta and the VSO brought forth the music’s rich tapestry beautifully. The piece opened in the lowest register of the orchestra with tremolo strings, brass and soft piano chords, building in power as the vision came into full view. Weird snippets of musical phrases were presented in turn. Following a great orchestral climax, we were back in the depths as the dream vanished from view. In all, it was a magical performance fully matching the magical poetic inspiration – and it makes one wonder why this piece isn’t programmed by orchestras more often.

The other American work presented was a world première of Poems of Life by contemporary composer Kenneth Fuchs. One of the most active American composers, Fuchs has created numerous commissioned chamber pieces, orchestral and vocal works in recent years. Poems of Life continues in that inventive vein; it is a piece that features a countertenor, cellist and an English horn player in prominent musical roles.

The work’s five movements, including a prologue and epilogue, put to music the poetry of Judith Wolf. Ten poems represent “a narrative of eternal love, the pain of loss through death, emotional transformation through grief, and ultimately, spiritual enlightenment,” according to the composer. Fuchs’ score calls for a relatively small orchestra, noticeably absent of brass and percussion. This may seem an unusual choice for a composer noted for his splashy orchestration – and yet the colors in this piece are just as rich and varied.  

This world première performance featured an unexpected and wholly welcome soloist in countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, who stepped in at the last moment to replace an indisposed David Daniels. Fresh from his prizewinning performances at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Cohen learned the score in just 48 hours. It was quite a feat – and even more impressive considering how beautifully the interpretation came together, featuring not only Cohen but also VSO principal cellist Michael Daniels.

To say that Cohen represents a bright new star in the constellation of countertenors would not be an overstatement. Not only were his intonation and technical skills impressive, there was a maturity in the way Cohen conveyed the sense of the words, which at times were searing in their emotional content. Hearing and watching him, it seemed inconceivable that barely a week ago, these words and music had been totally unknown to the singer. Poems of Life isn’t the kind of “flash in the pan” that won’t see the light of day again. Not only is the piece wholly involving, it could probably be performed by a mezzo-soprano with little loss of character, which may well add to its attractiveness.

In addition to Fuchs, the audience was treated to a more conventional countertenor piece – the aria “Dove sei, amato bene” from Handel’s opera Rodelinda.  In this more familiar fare, Cohen demonstrated clearly that he can stand with the best of his countertenor colleagues; he is an impressive talent for sure.

Following intermission, Falletta and the orchestra presented Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E minor. It’s one of the composer’s “big three” symphonies, and today’s performance was equally “big.” In the first movement, the opening clarinet solo passages were beautifully played, leading to the Allegro con anima section which had a welcome propulsive quality to it. 

The horn solo that opens the second movement, played by VSO principal John Shawger, was one of the best I have ever heard. After building to a tremendous climax with the “fate” theme, the second movement’s ending had a sense of resignation about it, which was bought off beautifully. The waltz movement that followed was light and airy on the outside… but with the “fate” theme asserting itself through the gilded surface. The fourth movement gave an opportunity for the VSO brass and timpani to really shine. The final coda was triumphant, yet flowing naturally. It was as if Falletta was reminding us that everything is all there in Tchaikovsky’s score, with no need to take it any further. From beginning to end, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth seemed so right in her capable hands.