Auburn Symphony dazzles in all Franck concert

Cesar Franck at the organ

By Philippa Kiraly

I love hearing the Auburn Symphony Orchestra. Let me count the ways (not counting the time it does to get there from Seattle): No cost and no problems parking. An acoustically good auditorium, large enough to host a symphony orchestra but small enough for the audience to feel close up and intimate with it. Top ticket price $25. And an orchestra that is worth the trouble to get there.

This is not “just” a community orchestra (and I am not putting down those groups, which give so much pleasure). This is a fully professional symphony orchestra on the technical level of the Seattle Symphony while somewhat smaller in size. The programming is excellent and often enlightening and the players, all people who make their livings in music but who are usually playing chamber music or in a pit, enjoy the opportunity to play symphonic music they don’t often get a chance to otherwise.

Last but not least are conductor Stewart Kershaw, whose brainchild the orchestra is and who is responsible for its musical quality, and general manager Lee Valenta, who somehow finds the nuts and bolts to keep the orchestra going and does everything else besides.

Saturday night’s concert was a case in point.

Kershaw planned a program by French composer Cesar Franck, normally not mentioned in the same breath as great 19th century colleagues such as Brahms. Yet, hearing this program, one wonders why not. All three works, two of them not often heard on the concert stage, are compositions from a master melodist with an imagination, a ear for instrumental timbres and a firm understanding of structure.

In his 15-minute symphonic poem, “The Accursed Huntsman,” Franck uses a large brass section and low woodwinds to creat the hunting ambience while the strings portray the people, places and customs the hunter tramples on in his Sunday hunt. The story is from a ballad by G.A. Burger and the hunter is sentenced to hell and damnation ever after.

Auburn gave such a vivid interpretation one could almost see the story unfolding, through emotions tranquil, tempestuous, ominous and supernatural, and all of it so clear one could hear the orchestral layers and individual groups of instruments as they carried the tale forward.

This was followed by the Symphonic Variations, with Mark Salman as piano soloist in a work which suits him well. It’s really a charming little concerto, with the variations running into each other without pause and a fine and familiar rondo at the end. This too was a pleasure to hear.

Franck’s big Symphony in D Minor ended the program. Here again, Franck’s mastery of timbre comes through strongly, particularly in the second movement where the strings players pluck their instruments along with the harp, sounding like one huge harp until they are joined by solo english horn, actually an alto oboe no matter what its name is. Throughout, the French horns with their prominent role performed with velvet smooth sound.

Even with the big forces Franck demands for this, Kershaw kept the tone transparent so that one could hear all the inner harmonies as they moved from instrument to instrument, and kept the architecture clear also, so that the shape of the whole symphony fit together.

This orchestra does not sound pushed or shrieky. It’s as thought the musicians release the sound from their instruments rather than dragging or shoving it out, though they can play loudly and forcefully as the music requires. The sound sings.

At the end of this very satisfactory concert, Kershaw named the four student musicians who had joined the orchestra for the evening, something he does each year for gifted young musicians from local schools.

The fourth, however was from Issaquah. 11-year old trumpeter Natalie Dungey came to Kershaw’s attention in October when he heard an episode of “From the Top” a national radio program hosted by pianist Christopher O’Riley which showcases talented student musicians from around the country.

Needing a fourth trumpet for the Franck concert, he invited Natalie to play. This gifted youngster was one of two cornet players in the “Huntsman” and played trumpet throughout the 40 minute symphony, a feat considering she has still a child’s size lungs. Natalie, with poise and competence, then gave Auburn’s traditional concert encore, playing “Trumpeter’s Lullaby” by Leroy Anderson with the orchestra.

King-FM plays today’s concert live at 2.30. The Auburn Symphony’s next concert pair is April 10-11 when Prokofiev’s Cantata “Alexander Nevsky” is on on the program. Tickets on the website at http://www.auburnsymphony.com

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