Sunday, April 13, 2008
NOVA-CC and WMP perform Vaughn Williams Sea Symphony, Rota Bassoon Concerto
“O thou transcendent.” With that line from Walt Whitman’s Passage to India Book XXVI, the most thrilling part of Ralph Vaughn Williams ‘s “Sea Symphony” begins the denouement of a 65-minute work that, on the surface, could be compared to Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” (#8), Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, or even Claude Debussy’s Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, although stylistically and emotionally it is different from all of these (as these are from each other). In fact, is usually numbered as Vaughn Williams ‘s “Symphony #1” because the choral symphony (the full mixed chorus dominates every movement, and soloists appear in all but one). The key is not listed, but it is D Major (after an opening brass call in B-flat minor) and the work as a whole ends quietly, dying away on a solo cello, playing an F-sharp with the underlying D very audible. Vaughn Williams was almost forty when he completed the work, in parallel with Brahms, who also did not take on the symphony until well into adulthood. Vaughn Williams (1872-1958) did a lot of his symphonic composition very late in life.
Some portions of the work (composed about the same time as the late Mahler symphonies) recall the Brahms “German Requiem,” but the writing is more modal and pentatonic. It is, in fact, very “English,” before English music became more continental. The quieter, leaner passages, such as the beginning of the triple-time slow movement, sometimes foreshadow Britten (as in Peter Grimes).
Those not satisfied with the quiet ending can spin the earlier choral-orchestral song “Toward the Unknown Region,” about the same subject matter – and very loud and very joyful. (Despite his reputation as a pastoralist, Vaughn Williams can be loud and virile.) Britain regards exploring the sea the way America now looks at space exploration.
All of this was performed on Sunday April 13 2008 at the Schlesinger Concert Hall at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, VA, by the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Orchestra, and the NOVA Chorus conducted by Ulysses S. James, with Mark Whitmire as Choral Director, and Aurelius Gori as baritone, Jennifer Hughes-Lopez as soprano.
Before the intermission (the host, herself a violinist, warned that the Vaughn Williams is “not short”), there was a performance of Italian film composer Nino Rota ‘s Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra, in C. (There aren’t many of these besides Mozart’s in B-flat). There are three movements: Toccata, Recitative, and Theme and Variations, total about 20 minutes. Rota (1911-1979) wrote a lot of movie music (including “The Godfather”). but, like John Williams, wrote plenty of concert music. The rhythmic themes in the first and last movement sounded very familiar, and even though the composer himself is obscure. The witty style is a bit like Prokofiev (a bit in the Classical Symphony neoclassical style) with a shade of Arensky and Tchaikovsky in the Variations, set to various dances.
The program repeats at the Church of the Epiphany in Washington on April 6 and 20.