Maestro Charles Latshaw, recently appointed to the post of musical director and conductor for the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra, made an impressive and enthusiastically received debut Friday night as he led the Orchestra in a diverse program of repertoire representing a span of two centuries.
True to his penchant for diversity in programming and an admirable goal to attract new audiences through music that is both challenging and accessible, Latshaw progressed smoothly through an evening that began with a “warhorse” concert overture by Beethoven, followed by a “classic” 18th century concerto for horn and orchestra by Mozart.
Leaping forward a century, Gustave Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer” lent a more introspective mood to the first half of the concert. A recent setting of contemporary poetry followed intermission, again featuring the evening’s two soloists. Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly’s brilliantly orchestrated “Hary Janos Suite,” an early 20th century work, offered a reverberating grand finale that featured the full complement of the orchestra.
In the opening Beethoven “Coriolan” Overture, inspired by plays of Shakespeare and a contemporary Viennese dramatist, the orchestra’s string section seemed a bit disconnected rhythmically but warmed to their task as the evening progressed. Guest soloist Jeff Nelsen, a good friend of the conductor, gave an admirable reading of Mozart’s challenging Fourth Horn Concerto.
In pre-concert remarks, Nelsen related that he had commissioned a newly designed and somewhat larger instrument from a Bavarian builder. The enhanced tonal resources and interesting harmonic characteristics of this instrument were notable during his performance of a work that is usually heard on a more traditionally constructed instrument.
Jeff Nelsen’s wife, mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen, then offered a moving and convincing performance of the deeply emotional and autobiographical set of lieder by late 19th century composer Gustav Mahler. The lyrics that speak of unrequited love were perfectly suited to Ms. Nelsen’s rich, warm vocal qualities.
It is unfortunate that the four thematically linked sections were interrupted by audience applause, an unwelcome disruption of the mood and atmosphere of this profound work. While attempting to encourage concert attendance by a new generation of young people is laudable, we often witness an ingrained propensity of that generation to burst into applause at the slightest pause in the music. An announcement requesting that applause be held until the conclusion would be appropriate, and this was indeed what Mr. Latshaw attempted to relay to the audience prior to the second song cycle on the program.
Opening the second half of the program, a set of songs by contemporary composer Ryan O’Connell, “Remembering the Future,” were written a few years ago for the evening’s soloists, and they hold a special personal significance for the Nelsen couple. As was the case in the earlier Mahler song cycle, it would have been helpful to have the texts projected either on the wall to the left of the stage or by utilization of the overhead subtitle system that is available in Ardrey Auditorium. Though the poem texts were often unintelligible, the setting for horn, soprano, and small orchestra effectively conveyed their emotional and philosophical content.
It was the express desire of Mr. Latshaw in this debut performance to showcase the talents of both individual players and the divisions of the orchestra, string, wind, brass and percussion. Many conductors experiment with rearrangement of the symphony players on stage, and in this case Latshaw placed the viola section where the cellos usually reside, with that section moved to center stage. This produces a subtle difference in the overall sound texture of the orchestra -- not necessarily a bad thing, just notably different.
While perusing the program listing of orchestral personnel for this concert, it was gratifying to observe a “passing of the torch” with two young players representing a new generation of musicians. Violinist Elizabeth Scarnati, daughter of principal oboist Rebecca Scarnati, has held a chair in the string section for some time, and now Jason Roederer, son of long-time FSO bassist Lance Roederer, is performing behind his father in the string bass section.
This successful opening night for the Flagstaff Symphony’s 68th season bodes well for the remainder of a year of great music-making.