In a welcome respite from our wintry weather, a group of Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra patrons gathered at the Museum of Northern Arizona this past Thursday afternoon for an opportunity to hear an informal talk by the second in the lineup of four candidates for the post of Musical Director for the Orchestra. Maestro Darko Butorac offered a glimpse of his vision and goals if he is selected for the position, as well as an outline of repertoire that he might propose for future seasons.

Butorac is quite familiar with the Flagstaff community and its musical resources, having served as director of NAU Orchestras from 2004 to 2008. Butorac strongly believes in the presentation of symphonic concert music not as simply “an event”, but as “an experience” with the potential to be a catalyst for community participation and benefit from that experience. As did the first candidate, Charles Latshaw, auditioned here last October, Butorac has excellent ideas for building on the already substantial strengths of the FSO, and for community involvement and building of audiences for serious concert music.

On Friday evening, Darko Butorac lifted the baton for the downbeat to Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture”, and it was immediately apparent that he had already established a strong bond and commanding presence with the large orchestral forces under his direction. The “Egmont” is a frequently performed “warhorse” in standard orchestral repertoire, and can sometimes be given a mundane reading. Here, the conductor utilized his imposing physical attributes (he is beyond six feet in height and long in limb) and his energetic yet graceful conducting style did not at all detract from the way he delineated each musical line and phrase, extracting the essence of the dramatic Beethoven work, a descriptive portrayal of individual freedom and yearning for liberty, themes of a novel by his Viennese contemporary Goethe. This was a strong start to what was to be a true “experience” in making music for what appeared to be a very receptive audience.

Coming to center stage from her customary position in the brass section of the orchestra, trumpeter Cindy Gould offered a brilliant and technically fluent reading of the Trumpet Concerto by Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian. This work is “idiomatic” in many ways, both in the utilization of Eastern European rhythmic and melodic patterns and in the exploitation of the extremes of trumpet range, complex fingering and tongue techniques, and breath control required by an instrument that is challenging to master. Following the concert, Gould said that it was also a challenge to play this work on a B-flat concert instrument, for which the concerto was written, as she feels more comfortable playing in the higher C and D range of her instrument. Nonetheless, she delivered a masterful and totally controlled performance, and received a well-deserved standing ovation at its conclusion.

Following intermission, the orchestra and its guest conductor turned to the meat of the evening’s fare, the monumental Fifth Symphony of Soviet Russian composer Serge Prokofiev, one of the true giants of 20th century music. The Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra has developed and matured remarkably during the past few years in terms of flexibility and capability, and here was an example when it was given the opportunity to show what it can do when offered a work that is not frequently performed due to its complexity and difficulty. Maestro Butorac said that he took somewhat of a risk in programming this work, but was delighted to offer both orchestra and audience an opportunity to tackle this landmark in the history of 20th century music. Again, the conductor’s performance on the podium brought out the best in each section of the orchestra, from the rapid and scintillating passages for upper strings to the brilliant brass statements and more lyrical interjections by woodwinds, the rich and dark sonority of lower strings, the powerful underscoring by percussion, and finally and most importantly, the captivating and musically satisfying experience of hearing a piece written during one of the darkest times in recent history, which its composer conceived as “a symphony on the greatness of the human soul”.

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