Terrence Wilson and his extraordinary technique brought the audience to its feet last night in a performance with the Prince George's Philharmonic at the Bowie Center for the Performing Arts in Bowie, MD. Mr. Wilson's command of Sergei Rachmaninoff's famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (written in 1934 and premiered at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 7, 1934) was technically convincing and a true tribute to the great Russian composer and pianist so famous for his precision performance and interpretive art.
Mr. Wilson's playing of the Rhapsody was an awe-inspiring, effervescent, explosion of musical mastery that was paired with the Prince George's Philharmonic's partnering perfection. The orchestra supported and highlighted Mr. Wilson's fantastic performance, and he in turn knew exactly when to allow the orchestra to shine. The bravura elements of the Rhapsody worked not only because of Mr. Wilson’s and Mr. Ellis’ control and understanding of the music but because they allowed the moments less technically demanding to sing out creating the emotional contrasts that make the piece work.
Mr. Wilson returned to stun the audience with his encore performance of Arcadi Volodos' (Russian: Аркадий Аркадиевич Володось) brilliantly impossible piano transcription of the Rondo "Alla Turca" from Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331 (300i). Listening to Mr. Wilson play the unbelievably difficult solo piano music was like standing in the middle of a pyrotechnical explosion. Mr. Wilson, like Rachmaninoff and Gould, is able to make inner voices sound forth while framing the melodic inventions with technically demanding rhythmic counterpoint.
The second concert in the Prince George's Philharmonic 2012-2013 season showcased the considerable talent and musical expertise of the orchestra's members. The percussion section was on time in sync and right there every time the music called for an exclamation point or subtle coloring that make special musical moments. The poetic themes of the night's compositions highlighted music's ability to transport a listener to a different time or place, and the percussion section was there to ensure the effect and the feelings that the composers were inducing.
The entire program in fact seemed to be performed at a speed that allowed the various sections to demonstrate their unique technical contributions in each of the compositions that made up the November concert. The percussion and brass in the Smetana and the Rimsky-Korsakov were heroic confirming the first rate nature of the Prince George's County Philharmonic. The cellos and contrabasses were solid and artful in the Barber as well. And the woodwinds beautifully demonstrated their art throughout the evening, particularly in Barber's challenging Die natali, Op. 37; Chorale Preludes for Christmas. Maestro Ellis greatly enhanced the performance of Barber’s little-known Die Natali with an introductory explanation of its construction - with parts of the orchestra playing several illustrative selections from the piece.
A symphony orchestra is held together by musical cloth made from the weft and warp of the string section led by the violins and the violas. The violas were especially outstanding in Barber's Dei Natali. All of this goes to say that they are always in the bull's eye, always dancing on the head of a pin most especially audible in the quiet simple brief connective passages of any performance. After the briefest moment of indecision in a transition section early in Smetana's From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields (Z českých luhů a hájů from Ma Vlast), the string section performed is role as the very fabric of the music well focusing when directed and supporting in a musical partnership when called for displaying the art that makes the Prince George's Philharmonic the wonderful orchestra that it is.
Mr. Ellis laid out an interesting program for the evening which he explained in detail in the Philharmonic's electronic newsletter, Quarter Notes. All of the technical challenges came together in each of the evening's compositions. Each composition, taken as a stand-alone performance, was great. Each performance showed the artistry of the many varied contributions of the symphonic team. In short, the orchestra was in great form, exciting, proficient and masterful, but somehow the entirety of the program seemed to be risk averse, Mr. Wilson's performance excepted. It was if as though each piece was performed at the same tempo.
That said the evening was a special reminder of the remarkable musical organization that brings extraordinary performances to Prince George's County, Maryland. If you were not there, you missed quite an evening. Prince George's County is so fortunate to have a first rate orchestra in its midst.
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A note from the Music Director
Program building is one of the fundamental tasks for any conductor, and one of my favorite parts of being the Philharmonic's Music Director; the process of assembling our November 17 program was particularly interesting for me, so I think that a brief look back at some of the considerations I dealt with in this particular case might shed some light on the variety of factors which can influence the programming process.
I began with two "givens": first, that a concert program should consist of a minimum of 60 and a maximum of 90 minutes of music, with the ideal model being in the 75-80 minute range; and second, that the removable floorboards which cover the orchestra pit at the Bowie Center will not support the weight of a 9-foot concert grand piano. From that point, I moved on to two strongly held preferences: first, to present Terrence Wilson as soloist with the Prince George's Philharmonic at the earliest possible opportunity, and second, to perform Samuel Barber's Die Natali on a program which was scheduled fairly close to Christmas. Mr. Wilson was unavailable for either of the dates in the 2011-12 season which remained open at the time I initiated discussions with his management, and the Philharmonic had already agreed to host a winner of the Johansen International Competition for this season's opening concert. A visit to Mr. Wilson's website brought up the list of works which are currently in his performance repertoire - the Paganini Rhapsody fairly jumped off the page at me because it's been more than 20 years since the Philharmonic has performed it, and because it is the perfect sort of dramatic showpiece needed to provide a balancing contrast to the Barber, which is predominantly cool and quiet in character. These two pieces gave me the core of our program, as well as the first 40 minutes of music.
The next work added was the Smetana - it's a piece which I have known and loved for many years, but have only performed once (with another orchestra in 1990) - it is also a piece which has never been played by the Prince George's Philharmonic. The final decision to add it to this program came during my visit to the Czech Republic's Sumava National Park in 2010; my own experience of Bohemia's woods and fields proved the decisive factor. I now had a brilliant showpiece for solo piano and orchestra, a 20th century work based on Christmas carols, and a tone poem which describes a specific geographic location, all of which added up to about 52 minutes of music; it made the most sense to me to make the showpiece the central focus of the program and balance it with another "place" piece, plus another holiday-themed piece. I gave very serious consideration to Maurice Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnol, but it was at that point that the physical logistics of the Bowie Center came into play. Because of the weight restriction on the pit cover and the depth of the piano itself, I knew that we would lose the twelve feet of stage space closest to the audience for this particular concert; unfortunately, the Ravel calls for an exceptionally large wind and percussion section, plus a pair of harps, so I reluctantly arrived at the conclusion that the requisite orchestral forces would simply not be able to fit onto this stage. The Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio espagnol, however, requires several fewer wind players, only one harp, and has a somewhat smaller percussion setup; like the Ravel, it is a brilliantly orchestrated piece which was inspired by the composer's own visit to Spain, and although shorter by a couple of minutes, it certainly affords a rousing finale for any concert program. This brought me to 67 minutes of music - on the short side for a complete program - and I was still casting about for a second holiday piece. After brainstorming with a couple of my colleagues, I discovered that the solution was as simple as a look through my own library, where I turned up the score to Britten's Men of Goodwill - I'd performed it years ago when I took over a Holiday Pops program from another conductor on short notice. I recalled thinking at the time that it was borderline too serious for a Pops concert; but in one of those wonderful "Eureka" moments, I realized that it was just what I needed to complete this particular program - it didn't require any instruments which weren't already required for the other four pieces, Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber were almost exact contemporaries whose compositional styles complement each other beautifully, and at 9 minutes' duration, it brought the program right into the heart of the "sweet spot" in terms of overall duration.
Hopefully, this little tale will illustrate the multiplicity of considerations which can enter into a conductor's programming decisions, and that you will enjoy the resultant variety of music which we'll perform for you on Saturday.