BSO soloists revel in the spotlight

Despite the inescapable humidity, Chapin Hall was packed with students and visitors on Friday night in anticipation of the largest Berkshire Symphony Orchestra (BSO) concert of the year, the Competition Winners Gala. The concert was conducted by Ronald Feldman, director and artist in residence, and featured three student soloists: Laone Thekiso ’12 on piano, Hannah Smith-Drelich ’10 on clarinet and David Kealhofer ’13 on cello. It also presented Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D major and the world premiere of “Wey-Gat Cycles,” an original composition by Brian Simalchik ’10.

Thekiso opened the night with a boldly assertive rendition of the first movement from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (1891 version). In an outpouring of expressive physical as well as emotional gestures, the confidence behind his forceful interpretation never diminished, even during the quieter moments of the piece. His virtuosic rapidity impressed both audience and conductor, who at one point seemed to be taken aback when Thekiso began abruptly but recovered without incident. The rich orchestral sound and their wide impressionistic range of tone complemented his playing well. Thekiso played the cadenza with special skill, gently arching through the variations to reach a final grand recapitulation of melancholic, but powerfully beautiful, theme.

For the soloist competition, Thekiso had been choosing between Gershwin’s Concerto in F and the Rachmaninoff. In the end, he said, it had come down to a matter of discovering something new. “I love the amount of expression Rachmaninoff offers, as well as the quality and substance of the music,” he said. “It is technically demanding, but all of the challenges are worth tackling, because they serve a purpose … Rachmaninoff is not about virtuosity for its own sake.” Though he had played with the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra previously in South Africa, Thekiso found his experience with the BSO far more connective. “This felt like two forces opposing and complementing each other at the same time, as is a trademark of the romantic piano concerto,” he said.

The premiere of Simalchik’s “Wey-Gat Cycles” (2010) followed. Dutch for “Wind Gate,” Wey-Gat is also an actual location on the Hudson River, discovered by Simalchik on a hiking trip, whose natural forms inspired his composition. Despite the excitement of hearing the composition performed live, his best moment, he claimed, occured during the writing process. “All of a sudden everything click[ed] and problems melt[ed] away,” he said. “Wey-Gat Cycles” began soothingly with a single chime soon joined by harmonics in the string section. The composition truly became a process of layering as the vibraphones, cellists, xylophones and woodwinds sank into a peaceful give-and-take, swelling and dying with sound. Melody comingled with harmony before a final dissonance gave way to ending on a single note.

The tone of the evening then shifted for Smith-Drelich’s performance of the Rondo (third movement) from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major. As the piece was originally written for the now-rare basset clarinet, Smith-Drelich and the orchestra preserved a few of the lower register runs by shifting them an octave down from the transcription for the A clarinet. The choice to retranscribe may have contributed to some difficulty in hearing the quickly moving runs, but otherwise, Smith-Drelich gave a strong performance. Her playful attitude went hand-in-hand with the lighthearted movement, providing for an engaging and impressive performance as she and the orchestra exchanged breathtaking passages for a return to the theme in rondo form.

Smith-Drelich began learning the clarinet in fourth grade, inspired by the clarinet solo (as a cat) in Tchaikovsky’s Peter and the Wolf. Despite the straightforward technicality of Mozart, she said, “It [was] a challenge making the piece interesting and expressive while trying to stay within the rigid confines of the tempo.” She added that she enjoys performing for the exhilaration of success that music can offer: “It’s pretty thrilling playing in a good orchestra in the middle of some bombastic piece, where everyone around you is blowing their lungs out and while you are too you can’t help thinking ‘hey, we sound pretty d–n good.”’

As the final student soloist of the night, Kealhofer played solo cello for Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. In the very opening notes of the simple and charming theme in the solo line, a single nod from Kealhofer to Feldman betrayed a deeper mutual understanding than usual. The seven variations, run through without breaks, began with two high-spirited ones before transitioning into a tender andante in a graceful C major. He picked up the pace upon returning to the original E major in the fourth variation, dabbling with the theme in a short cadenza-like imitation before moving into a genuine cadenza amidst the grandeur of the fifth. A relaxed D minor dominated the sixth variation, which quickly moved into the fast-paced and energetic finale.

Of the entire piece, Kealhofer said he enjoyed the attitude of Tchaikovsky’s Variations the most. “That’s the most rococo thing about them!” he exclaimed. While he admits some of his choices are for improving technical aspects of his playing, he usually chooses to play music he personally enjoys – an esoteric mix reaching from Bach to early 20th century German music. In the future, Kealhofer plans to work on a number of concertos, including Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante and Haydn’s Concerto No.2 for cello.

Feldman closed the concert, leading the BSO in Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D major. Though a hauntingly lovely piece built upon a three-note motif, the nearly hour-long work demanded significant focus and concentration – a difficult goal to achieve after three movements and a contemporary work. Their fatigue gradually disappeared as the orchestra gained momentum, pushing into the richly woven fabric of melodies. The violin and brass sections tended to dominate the first movement, but by the second a nice counterbalance between the voices had been established. Triumphant and moving, the third and final movement embodied a strong nationalist sentiment of pride, ending the concert on a truly well-deserved celebratory note.