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The first candidate for appointment as the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra’s next conductor and musical director was enthusiastically welcomed this past week as Charles Latshaw met with members of the local arts community, rehearsed the orchestra during the week, and performed an audition concert last Friday evening. At a meet-and-greet reception last Wednesday Latshaw presented his vision and goals in the event that he is selected for the position following the audition of three more candidates during the remainder of the current FSO season.

With impressive credentials in his preparation for a conducting career, Latshaw has held previous posts in Ohio and Indiana and currently directs an orchestra in Grand Junction, Colorado, a community similar to Flagstaff with regard to demographics and support of the arts. A highly energetic advocate of the arts at many levels of community engagement, Latshaw favors “thematic diversity, accessibility, and collaboration” in his approach to symphonic music in a community such as ours. He is highly complementary of the quality and proficiency of our Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra.

In this season of auditions, each conductor selects his repertoire, within the framework of an opening instrumental piece, a concerto featuring a member of the orchestra as soloist, and a concluding symphonic work. Friday evening’s program, as intended by the conductor, provided ample opportunity for individual members of the orchestra to demonstrate their talent in solo passages.

Mexican composer Arturo Marquez wrote his “Danzon No.2” as part of a series of pieces based on the music of Cuba and Mexico. This was an excellent choice of an opening piece that fully demonstrates the conductor’s commitment to music that is “accessible” and “engaging” for audiences with a wide range of musical tastes and sophistication. Driving tango rhythms with frequent shifts in tempo and accent are essential elements of the Danzon, with extended passages for full orchestra and contrasting solos for piano, violin, clarinet, trumpet, and piccolo. The audience erupted in a standing ovation following this lively and brilliantly orchestrated work that has become a signature piece for the Venezuela Youth Orchestra and its young conductor, Gustavo Dudamel.

Oboist Rebecca Scarnatti has been a principal player in the woodwind division of the orchestra since 1991 and is Professor of Oboe at NAU. Over the years her proficiency and expertise have been evident in frequent solo passages within the context of symphonic works performed by the FSO. Her reading of the difficult and infrequently performed Oboe Concerto by Richard Strauss was absolutely brilliant, demonstrating her purity of tone, fine breath control, and technical mastery of that capricious double-reed instrument. Conductor and soloist were in total communication, with perfectly executed interplay between soloist and accompanying strings and winds in the outer movements and an arching lyricism in the slow movement that is a trademark of this late romantic composer. Accolades to Rebecca Scarnatti for a wonderful performance and a much deserved honor and opportunity for solo performance in collaboration with her colleagues.

The Fourth Symphony of Peter Tchaikovsky was again an excellent choice for demonstrating the conducting methods and performing style of the auditioning director, as well as offering the opportunity to highlight sections of the orchestra and individual players within those sections. The Fourth Symphony is somewhat of a synthesis of the tortured and perhaps bipolar personality and psyche of its composer, though the work is more “accessible” to listeners as opposed to his early three symphonies and the brooding, much more melancholy fifth and sixth.

Latshaw, despite his energetic and extroverted stage presence (he obviously has the theatre his blood, and chooses to offer richly illustrated remarks during intermission as well as in a pre-concert talk), has methods on the podium that are quite unobtrusive and understated. There is considerable emphasis on subtle, fluid, and effective hand motions (most notable in the left hand) combined with much facial contact with the orchestra. This approach was evident throughout the evening, and brought out some very fine and expressive playing from the entire orchestra. That said, there are still three candidates to be auditioned during the coming months, and we eagerly anticipate those events.

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