Lewin dazzles as symphony star

The Berkshire Symphony opened up its 2002 concert season on March 1 with the help of outstanding guest pianist Michael Lewin. The diverse musical program, performed for an older audience in Chapin Hall, included Carl Reinecke’s “Piano Concerto in F# Minor, Opus 72,” Melinda Wagner’s “Falling Angels” and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major.

The night started with conductor Ronald Feldman and Lewin entering to warm applause. Lewin took his seat at the grand piano for the Reinecke piece and Feldman brought the symphony in to begin the Allegro movement. The symphony highlighted the first movement with a stunning opening melodic line trading back and forth between the strings and the combined flutes and French horn sections.

The spotlight then centered on Lewin as the piano entered for the first solo. He complemented his remarkable musicianship with his entertaining and animated playing style, as he frequently threw his hands in the air at the ends of difficult passages. The focus on the piano in the opening movement shifted several times to the solo flute part played very delicately by Emmy Valet ’03. A 75-measure piano cadenza, showcasing Lewin’s talent, accented the end of the Allegro. Audience and symphony members alike watched in amazement as his fingers spanned both ends of the keyboard with grace and control, playing incredibly technical passages.

The Adagio ma non troppo followed, featuring concertmaster Melanie Dexter and principal cellist Susan Libby alongside Lewin. Lewin showed excellent range and delicate touch on the piano in the slower, softer second movement.

The finale of Reinecke’s composition opened with a fanfare-like piano solo, which was quickly echoed by nearly the entire symphony, giving listeners a glimpse of its full might. Once again, Lewin showed both the orchestra and the audience what a precise and meticulous musician he is as he played the bright, up-tempo passages perfectly, occasionally causing the top of the piano to shake. After what was clearly the most powerful movement, Lewin ended his portion of the performance to rousing applause from the audience.

The next piece of the program, “Falling Angels,” presented a challenge to the orchestra with its contemporary style, unusual instrumentation, technical difficulty and abundance of dissonant chords. The ensemble faced the added pressure of having Melinda Wagner, composer of “Falling Angels,” in the audience.

The piece pushed the limits of traditional music with use of a harp, celesta and the full range of the percussion section. Wagner’s comments in the program notes characterized the music as “the exploration and potential of ideas concerning sounds,” and her piece certainly tried to search for new sounds in a symphony orchestra. The atonal feel of the piece kept the audience guessing as to the imminent direction of the music, and the lack of a clear melody for the majority of the piece didn’t allow listeners the option of focusing on just one instrument or section. The violins showed fabulous control in holding extended pitches in the extreme upper register, and the brass instruments asserted their presence with important melodic lines in the trumpet and harsh, biting chords.

“Falling Angels” ended with a sharp flourish, and Feldman acknowledged Wagner as the audience applauded around her. She seemed to commend the symphony’s rendition of her work as she in turn recognized Feldman and the symphony.

The orchestra returned to more familiar territory for the second half of the program, playing Dvorák’s eighth symphony (Op. 88) in G Major. The Allegro con brio opened with a graceful cello, French horn and bassoon line, accompanied by a playful flute part. The piece moved quickly into the full symphony for several measures before suddenly falling off to just the strings, and then returning to the opening cello, flute and bassoon line. After accompanying the guest soloist and playing an unusual piece in the first half of the program, the symphony got a chance to exhibit its musicians and impressive full-symphony sound.

The second movement was perhaps the strongest portion of the entire evening. Once again, the flute section performed impressively, making its well-rehearsed crescendos and decrescendos sound almost effortless. The flutes also blended well with the clarinets and first violins in the delicate and light opening section of the movement. A timpani roll signaled a transition into a more powerful section, which included another solo by first violin Dexter.

The third movement, Allegretto grazioso, provided a nice contrast to the Adagio, picking the tempo back up in anticipation of the fourth and final movement. The quick string line was offset by strong, slow accompaniment in the wind section.

The ending of the third movement flowed quickly into the Allegro ma non troppo. It opened with a shaky trumpet fanfare, but the overall sound of the fourth movement was strong. A pizzicato string supplement to the flute section was followed by an accented unison string line that seemed almost march-like at times. Solid bass and percussion sections supported the violins and violas.

The ending of the piece must certainly have put any criticisms of the symphony’s performance on hold. The atmosphere was intense as the combined accelerando and crescendo capped off the performance on an impressive note.