Who is this "Stradivari" guy, anyway? So what if he crafted the most incredible violins in history. And so what if one of these prized instruments is being played in Las Vegas tonight.
Ever since the fabulous 2002-2003 Season Premiere of the Las Vegas Philharmonic, I've been anxiously awaiting their second performance and the playing of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet suite. This masterpiece would be played first, but with all the hype surrounding the famous violin that would be featured later during tonight's Sibelius Violin Concerto, Swan Lake has been reduced to the status of a mere prelude. Phooey! That's like the Rolling Stones being the opening act for - well, for anybody.
Anyway, the "prelude" (grumble) began with a movement simply called 'Scene', and it set the scene for the entire suite: melodic, dramatic, and grand. From the beautiful oboe opening backed by graceful sweeps of the harp, to the powerful minor chords by the brass section, this buildup gets the listener ready for The Waltz. The capital "T" is intentional; this is the finest waltz I have ever heard. While maintaining a flowing ¾ tempo, it contains several different verses with wonderful melodies and an elegant sound, alternating with a repeating chorus that brings such a sudden increase in intensity that it reminds me of a person being shot out of a cannon. I've heard some recordings in which the orchestra toned down this movement, but that didn't happen at tonight's live performance. The Las Vegas Philharmonic played it at full power, and it felt great. (And I do mean "felt." This music isn't just for the ears.)
This suite is a selection of pieces from the much longer ballet score. In the suite, the movements aren't played chronologically but are arranged to create a certain flow. Personally, I would prefer to hear "The Waltz" last because it finishes with the biggest and best ending in all of classical music. But what do I know? Since the ballet's story takes place on a Prussian prince's twenty-first birthday, I probably would have named it "Der Kegger."
The Swan Lake suite contained three more movements. The Hungarian Dance had nice staccato horn notes behind the string melody. The lively Spanish Dance was spiced by castanet percussion, and the Mazurka - an energetic Polish dance played in ¾ time like a waltz - featured wonderful clarinet and oboe parts. All of these movements were brief, and the music was over far too soon.
Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake Suite is big, melodic, and festive. It's almost as much "holiday music" as his Nutcracker Suite, which the Phil will perform at its Yuletide Celebration on December 14 and 15. As I write, the holidays are arriving, so if you don't already own this music, hurry! You can finish reading this later.
"Stradivarius" refers to an instrument crafted by Antonio Stradivari, born in Italy in 1644. He built cellos, guitars, and even harps but is best known for making the most distinctive violins in the world. One of these was featured in tonight's performance of the Violin Concerto in D Minor, by the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Generously provided by Chicago violin dealer Bein & Fushi, the Strad was in the talented hands of the Phil's concertmaster, De Ann Letourneau. Ever looked up "gutsy" in the dictionary? Try holding an object made in 1713 and worth more than three million dollars. Now try playing incredibly challenging music on it before a sold-out crowd of music aficionados. That's the definition.
The Concerto began with a faint string chorus suggesting faraway falling leaves on a grey day, but that changed quickly as De Ann began playing. Her energetic solos often had her fingers flying in a blur; besides the frenetic fiddling that we can all imagine, she also played tricky octave chords beginning with odd-sounding grace notes and some slower, sustained high notes over low chords that sounded like two players together. Wow! In between, the orchestra played smoothly flowing music, with some great brooding backgrounds from cello and bass, which would suddenly launch De Ann into another burst of solo virtuosity. When the first movement ended, the audience instantly and defiantly committed symphonic faux pas by applauding wildly. Oh, well - I figure De Ann appreciated the few extra seconds of rest.
A Stradivarius is reputed to sound utterly unique among fine violins. (More information is available at the Smithsonian Institution's web site.) Word on the street has it that the reason lies in a mold that once grew in the forests where Antonio obtained the wood for his instruments. It affected the resonance from the violins' bodies, and even I could discern the difference. The Strad sounded silkier in the upper ranges, and in the lower notes it projected a richly textured buzz. These qualities were especially evident in the Concerto's more sedate second movement, in which De Ann played more sustained, graceful notes. For the third movement, she cranked up the energy again with lively solos set off by some terrific blasts from the horn section. De Ann didn't own the instrument, but with her passionate musicianship, she certainly owned the music.
Camille Saint-Saëns was a brilliant French composer and accomplished organist. His 'Symphony #3 in C Minor, Op. 78', would feature Dr. Paul S. Hesselink on a Rodgers organ provided by Nevada Piano & Organ Centers. During the first part of the Symphony, the powerful instrument was subdued, accompanying the strings and lending an ominous background to the violas' sweet strains. I pictured a little old lady in a huge Gothic cathedral. Also featured were some nice staccato notes by the bass clarinet and bassoons, whose low, mellow tones are normally difficult to pick out.
Hiding a big organ in an orchestra is like ignoring an elephant in your living room. Eventually, in the second half of this piece, Saint-Saëns brings in the instrument with a vengeance. Dr. Hesselink let loose a chord that the Pope must have heard - Pope Pius, that is. The tones resonated throughout Artemus Ham Hall and through my bones. This varied movement also contained powerful horns, soaring woodwinds, and crashing cymbals. Rock and roll! It built up to a "wall of sound" climax, and seventy-odd musicians can make a mighty big wall.
What fun! With the Stradivarius, the organ, and the biggest waltz ever, tonight's full-house audience got a real earful from the Las Vegas Philharmonic.
Reviewed, November 16, 2002, by Las Vegas Jetsetters Magazine Entertainment Editor, Robert LaGrone.