“Ah — I love it when all that concussion plays.” The gentleman sitting behind me on Saturday at the George Mason University Center for the Arts had just been reveling in the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra’s juicy performance of Corigliano’s “Three Hallucinations” from his film score for “Altered States,” and its mighty percussion section had outdone itself. The gentleman was delighted, but more broadly in the hall, applause was tentative. Much of the rest of the audience hadn’t seemed sure what to make of this music, the psychological soundscape of a mind distorted by the terrors of an LSD trip.
But in fact, the orchestra under guest conductor William Boughton had outdone itself. It wove textures of strange sounds (eerie string portamentos, nasty bassoon burps and the weird reverberations of a bowed vibraphone) into crescendos of enormous tension and interspersed moments of reassuring sweetness that inevitably led to the next horror.
As the opening shot in the FSO’s 2011-12 season, Corigliano’s score promised more daring than the rest of the season’s repertoire list reveals, but it was a good vehicle for highlighting the considerable strengths of the orchestra — splendid winds and percussion, agile strings and comfort outside the box of the 19th century canon.
Violinist Karina Canellakis, who plays with impressive accuracy and easy athleticism, seemed miscast as a soloist in both of her assignments — the Chausson “Poeme,” which needed to build its subtleties on a much richer and warmer tonal foundation, and the Saint-Saens “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso,” which just needed to be bigger. She struggled to be heard over the orchestra in the Chausson (even though Boughton was a model of restraint) and seemed to be playing on, not in, the strings in the Saint-Saens.
The concluding Berlioz “Symphonie Fantastique” exposed some issues that the orchestra probably needs to attend to. At the moment there is so much disagreement in the violin section about vibrato — wide/narrow, fast/slow — that the section doesn’t project a uniform sound, and attacks in general need a lot more bite to articulate crisply.