Glowing Halloween Jack o’lanterns lined the front of the Ardrey Auditorium stage last Friday evening as Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra players and members of the audience eschewed their normal mode of dress in exchange for colorful spooky and humorous costumes. Guest conductor Thomas Heuser led a charismatic performance of four orchestral works with themes appropriate to the holiday.
In comments prior to raising his baton for the opening work, Heuser pointed out that the works selected for this Masterworks II program were specifically intended to “tell a story,” and this was quite successfully realized throughout this second concert of the FSO’s current season.
The opening work by Iowa-born composer Michael Daugherty is a movement from his Metropolis Symphony, written in 1993. Red Cape Tango is a portrayal of a Super Man theme of conflict with the character Doomsday, and is structurally based on a combination and intertwining of the Medieval Gregorian chant “Dies Irae” and a contemporary tango rhythmic pattern. Initially this musical scheme was of interest, though the piece soon becomes rather repetitious and very much representative of the “film score” genre. Interesting and creative percussion scoring highlights the piece, but as it proceeds the work fails to sustain interest throughout the span of its performance.
The “Witch’s Ride” from the popular Humperdinck opera “Hansel and Gretel,” followed by Mussorgsky’s portrayal of a witches’ sabbath and satanic adventures in “Night on Bald Mountain,” each offered considerable opportunity for the Orchestra’s strings to display their talents, and the latter work was particularly strong in those passages requiring clean intonation and a warm quality of string sound.
The highlight of the evening was most definitely the frequently performed four-movement orchestral suite “Scheherazade,” written in 1888 by the master of orchestral color and instrumentation, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Conductor Thomas Heuser seemed especially comfortable with this wonderful piece, and says that he has conducted it five times. He clearly demonstrates a strong affinity for this work, conducting it without the aid of a score, and he elicited the best efforts from each section of the orchestra as well as in the many solo passages required from various first-chair players.
Again, this is a story-based instrumental portrayal of tales from the legendary “Tales of a Thousand and One Nights” in which the title character regales her captor with an unending series of stories which delay her imminent execution. In this orchestral story-telling, the superior musical talents of the FSO’s first chair section leaders were given prominence.
Jon Eder’s technical finesse on the clarinet clearly portrayed the “oriental” themes of the story.
Always rock-solid in her role as first-chair flute, Jeannette Moore never fails to please with her beautiful phrasing and clarity of sound.
Her husband, bassoonist Kent Moore, had an opportunity for an extended solo passage, expertly performed.
First horn principal Nancy Sullivan was kept busy throughout the evening as were other members of the brass section.
Harpist Bonnie Brady does not always receive recognition for her many contributions to the coloristic aspects of many orchestral works in which she performs, and was more visible in this Rimsky-Korsakov score.
Finally, long-time Concert Master Louise Scott has always been the anchor of the string section. Now she had the opportunity for a highly deserved spotlight as her solo cadenzas introduced each of the four “tales” in the Scheherazade suite. Most impressive was that nearly unreachable and challenging high note at the upper register of the violin, in the suite’s third movement.
Currently in his second season conducting the San Juan Symphony in Durango, Thomas Heuser made a strong impression in this guest appearance with the FSO, and we hope to see him in a return engagement in the future.
The FSO’s newly appointed Musical Director and Conductor Charles Latshaw, who had a scheduling conflict Friday, has also made favorable first impressions, and he will return to lead a December performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet.