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Virginia's Up-and-Coming Symphony

By Joe Banno
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 21, 2000; Page C01

For any musical ensemble, a Kennedy Center debut must be regarded as a rite of passage. The Virginia Symphony played for the first time at the Concert Hall on Wednesday, in a program sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

This was probably the first time many of the concertgoers were able to hear this orchestra, which is based in the Norfolk area. The Virginia Symphony lacks the pedigree and media attention of the National Symphony or the Baltimore Symphony; it was formed from three smaller, local orchestras in 1979. Its players are an unusually young and fresh-faced lot, as well.

But any suspicions about the caliber of the group were shown to be groundless during the Kennedy Center debut. If the members' work on Wednesday was any indication of their usual playing standards, this is a fine ensemble. Instances of less-than-perfect intonation, dry string tone or false entrances were extremely rare. Rather, the Virginians' playing boasted scrupulous attention to dynamic markings, sensitivity to tonal blend, technique that ranged from the solid to the virtuosic, and an almost theatrical sense of character and color.

Clearly, music director JoAnn Falletta is a savvy orchestra-builder. More importantly, she's an inspiring conductor. Falletta has won conducting awards named for Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter and Leopold Stokowski. That seems appropriate, as her podium work draws on the legacies of all three--Toscanini's tight control over ensemble, Walter's affectionate balancing of inner voices and Stokowski's gutsy showmanship.

Few women have been able to establish high-profile conducting careers, and of those who have, fewer still have Falletta's talent. (She is also serving as music director of the Long Beach Symphony and the Buffalo Philharmonic.) And, in a welcome rebuke to male hegemony in the orchestral world, more than half of the personnel in Falletta's Virginia Symphony are women.

Falletta led an imaginative, war-horse-free program for Wednesday's concert. There were three works on the bill, all British, all 20th century, all worthy but seldom performed (at least in this country.)

Frank Bridge's tone poem "The Sea" bears some family resemblance to scores like Debussy's "La Mer" and Vaughan Williams's "Sea Symphony." If Bridge's ideas are less memorable, he still creates some seductive aural painting. The Virginia strings evoked moonlight with burnished tone, the winds were loaded with personality in the "Sea-foam" movement, and the storm made a fine noise, its scurrying figures redolent of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman."

The Double Concerto in B Minor for Violin, Viola and Orchestra is a product of 18-year-old Benjamin Britten and made its belated East Coast premiere at Wednesday's concert. (Colin Matthews turned Britten's nearly complete 1932 sketches into a full score as recently as 1997.) The concerto's angular, tonal brand of modernism already contains kernels of the composer's mature style. Ani and Ida Kavafian, on violin and viola, respectively, played the chugging solo lines in the outer movements with sinewy strength and made something hypnotic of the slow movement's relentless, mechanized tread. The orchestra accompanied with clean, finely calibrated phrasing.

Where this orchestra really shone, though, was in the syncopated boisterousness of William Walton's "Belshazzar's Feast."

This vivid and accessible choral work is a show-stopper when heard live, not least in a performance as splendidly dramatic as the one Falletta conducted. Part Elgar, part Stravinsky, part Hollywood film score, this telling of the enslavement and liberation of the Babylonian Jews is as much street festival as it is lamentation. Baritone Kevin McMillan was an eloquent, if underpowered, soloist, but the Virginia Symphony Chorus and the Master Chorale of Washington made a huge sound, with the text clear and thrillingly immediate. Falletta conducted with a controlled frenzy worthy of Bernstein, taking Walton's hairpin, rhythmic turns at an exuberant gallop.

The orchestra--especially some outstanding brass players--stayed with her every measure of the way, individual lines rising and falling eloquently out of the maelstrom.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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