LAST-MINUTE CONDUCTOR AND AN EVENING OF ORCHESTRAL CHESTNUTS
by Ed. Simone
When a concert soloist is suddenly taken ill it's often sheer luck to find someone with the musical chops to step in. When it happens to an orchestra's music director, it's ten-to-one and pick 'em if you can find a musician who knows the scores in detail and knows how to conduct.
When Benjamin Grow, the Southern Tier Symphony's music director, tested positive for COVID just before the orchestra's final rehearsal, John Landis, the STS librarian and principal percussionist, was able to step in. Landis, a long-time conductor and orchestral musician, knew the scores and was able to give the orchestra the sure, steady hand on the tiller it needed at the last minute.
The concert, the first in a celebratory triptych of concerts in this year's season, opens with Richard Wagner's Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a comic opera premiered in Munich in 1868. The machinations of Hans Sachs and the Master Singer's guild are vividly depicted in Wagner's laughing strings and playful passages in the woodwinds, with concertmaster James Ieda and the STS violins leading the way. The work seems like one long crescendo, with theme topping theme until the brass blows us into a final festive march, Cassie Hatch's triangle ringing above it all. It's a lovely performance full of nuance and power.
Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture is as familiar a piece of concert music as can be. But in the intimate setting of the Regina Quick Center's Rigas Family Theater, the orchestral parts come through so clearly that the piece sounds fresh and even more lushly romantic than usual. Julia Tunstall's and Dianna Clem's flutes sing with the oboes and clarinets behind the principal love theme. The violence of the clashes between the Montagues and Capulets gets a full-throttle treatment in Cyril Bodner's bells-up trumpeting and the STS's clear, crisp horn section. Landis allows the orchestra to bring out all the musical detail in the fantasy's coda. "The sun for sorrow will not show his head," says the Prince as Tchaikovsky's final chords resonate along with Moses Howden's rolling tympany.
Antonin Dvorak wrote his Symphony No. 9 in New York and Spillville, Iowa, while he was director of the Nation Conservatory of Music. Influenced by African-American spirituals, camp songs and the poetry of Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha, Dvorak created a loving, bold portrait of America. The symphony premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1893, and has been an audience favorite and a concert staple ever since. Landis and the Southern Tier Symphony bring out the drama of Dvorak's open landscape, right from the misty opening in the lower strings---the STS's violas, cellos and basses singing softly. The rousing finale with its sharp string figures and insistent brass promises to bring this Celebration of Masterworks to a sonorous close.
The Southern Tier Symphony and guest conductor John Landis perform this shimmering collection of orchestral favorites by Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak Saturday, October 22nd at 7:30 pm in the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts at St. Bonaventure University and again on Sunday, October 23rd at 3:00 pm in Blaisdell Hall at U-Pitt Bradford, PA.