By Philippa Kiraly
Grieg the Norwegian and Sibelius the Finn dominated last weekend’s concert by the Auburn Symphony. On Saturday night at the Auburn Performing Arts Center what came across most strongly was the host of dark colors those two composers evoke.
Building a portrait with each work they played, the orchestra and conductor Stewart Kershaw brought out those colors and the concomitant emotions to create a kaleidoscopic whole.
They began with Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” Suite No. 1, continued with his little tone poem “The Last Spring, “and followed that with his “Sigurd Jorsalfar” Suite. After intermission, turning to Sibelius, they played his big Symphony No. 2.
While the first and last mentioned are familiar, the other two have names much less well known, but on hearing them the music is some we have heard often on classical music radio stations or recordings.
In the orchestra’s hands, “The Last Spring” was gently nostalgic, melancholic, with a sense more of a dripping wet spring than a joyful bursting into life. In the “Death of Ase” from “Peer Gynt,” the music sounded slow and contemplative, more solemn than dirge-like, and in the last section, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” the orchestra captured the galumphing of the trolls just as one might imagine them.
Both “Peer Gynt” and “Sigurd Jorsalfar” were composed as incidental music for plays, the former by Ibsen, the latter by Grieg’s friend Bjornson, but the music has far outstripped their written words in the public mind.
There was an appropriately otherworldly feel to “Borghild’s Dream” in “Sigurd,” but the “Homage March” had one wondering what was happening in Bjornson’s play as the March is broken up with quieter interludes as though the marchers were not sure just what they were supposed to be doing next.
The Sibelius Second Symphony received as good a performance as I’ve heard in years.
The ASO is an excellent orchestra, the balance is good, the different sections are strong, the musicians are together and instantly responsive to Kershaw. In this concert, the cellos shone particularly, both for their tone and for their synchronization. The winds and brass, very prominent in this music, also deserve mention, notably the expressive solos from principal oboe Ove Hanson; and also the percussion, specially tympanist Phillip Hanson.
The contrasts were clear as the angst of the first movement was threaded with a cheerful little tune. The dramatic low plucked strings in the second gave way to crossed rhythms, with some musicians playing in a two count, others in three, across each other for a large part of the movement, all the while bringing out its somber feel broken only by a gentle melody like a shaft of pale sunlight. The triumphal ending of the last movement came like a hard fought triumph over an arduous journey.
All in all, this was a splendid concert, recognized as such by the audience. One might think of that triumph over the hard journey as the feeling in the orchestra at knowing it had been funded again by the City of Auburn, at a time when no one knew if that would be able to happen in this difficult economy. Kudos to the City for its recognition that it has here something well worth hanging on to.