A joyous return to live performance

by Ed. Simone


This weekend's concert by the Southern Tier Symphony and its music director, Benjamin Grow, features works with a light touch. Not that these pieces from Grieg, Mendelssohn and Mozart lack substance or impact: far from it. And each piece evinces that lightness uniquely---a trip through Shakespeare's fairyland for Mendelssohn; a nostalgic string suite for Grieg; and a nimble symphony sans trumpets and tympani for Mozart.


The Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg's "From Holberg's Time" is a suite of old-style folk dances, although the themes are Grieg's. It's meant to evoke the spirit of Norwegian baroque: the age of Ludvig Holberg, the humanist philosopher and teacher. The suite premiered in 1884 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Holberg's birth. Like Ravel's Le Tombeaux de Couperin, the suite pays homage to what was, for Grieg and his contemporaries, the bygone elegance of old musical forms.


In its five brief movements, the Holberg Suite features only the strings of the STS. Their rich resonance fully in evidence in the intimate setting of the Rigas Family Theater. (What a great place to listen to a symphony orchestra.) The second violins and violas lead off the lovely Sarabande; and principle cellist Brian Donat takes the melody in the Air. In the final movement, a Rigaudon, concertmaster Steven Bjella and principle violist David Levine lead a rousing country melody.


Mendelssohn's concert overture A Midsummer Night's Dream, evokes that most popular of Shakespeare's comedies. The overture dates from 1826, when Mendelssohn was 17, and it's popularity hasn't dimmed a bit since its premiere the following year. Later in his career, Mendelssohn wrote the remaining incidental music to Shakespeare's play and Grow and the STS perform the Scherzo and Wedding March as well.


The Overture uses broad strokes to highlight the major themes of the play, which Mendelssohnm read in a German translation. Here is the majesty of the court of Theseus and the braying of the transformed Bottom. The Scherzo goes deeper into the play, giving us the forest chase of Shakespeare's bewitched lovers and the mystery of the puckish Robin Goodfellow, sent before "to sweep the dust behind the door." The Wedding March is oh so familiar; but Grow and the STS bring out its joy and the festive pomp of the triple wedding ceremony that ends the comedy. Principal oboist Paul Schlossman, the STS brass and winds, especially flutists Julie Tunstall (principal) and Nicole Murray, shine in a shimmering performance from the entire ensemble.


The program ends with Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in g minor, the middle child in a trio of symphonies Mozart birthed in the summer of 1788. Unlike its younger and older siblings, 39 and 41, the 40 has no tympani or trumpets and is scored for strings, winds and two horns only. But what the 40 lacks in bombast, it more than makes up for in the sardonic wit of its minor key. It's an edgy piece that barely lets up from the opening movement with its driving pulse in the strings. When Grow and his STS musicians do pause for breath, in a lovely wistful second movement Andante, the cellos and violas take the lead. The third movement Menuetto and Trio have a country charm; but pulse along in the bright passages for violins and the richness of the STS basses. The Finale is a bit of a wild ride that Grow and his ensemble navigate beautifully. And if you hear ideas that Beethoven might build on later, well...so much the better.


This concert is a joyous occasion, coming as it does after two years of no live STS performances. "We’re getting back into the swing of live performance and are so pleased for both our musicians and our audiences to finally be together again," says STS Executive Director Laura Peterson. And this particular program of audience favorites is a celebration of great musicmaking and great music listening.


The Southern Tier Symphony and music director Benjamin Grow perform their program of Mozart, Grieg and Mendelssohn Saturday, March 19th at 7:30 pm in the Regina A. Quick Ceneter for the Arts at St. Bonaventure University and again on Sunday, March 20th at 3:00 pm in the Bromeley Family Theater at U-Pitt Bradford, PA.