How delightful it is to see and hear fine musicians playing crowd-pleasing classical music in an intimate setting. That is exactly what the Prescott Chamber Orchestra offers its audiences.
Not to confuse “crowd-pleasing” with familiar, although some of the pieces performed on Friday night, Feb. 3, were indeed music-lover favorites.
Case in point: Rachmaninoff’s gorgeous “Vocalise,” a short orchestral song that brings tears of joy to my eyes every time I hear it.
But music director and conductor Dr. Philip Kuhns assembles his concert programs with both listenability and a sense of adventure in mind, which ensures some selections will be known to audiences, whereas others perhaps won’t. It’s a good thing.
PCO’s ensemble comprises some 35 string and wind players, as well as a small percussion section. Concert selections range from the early Baroque to modern-day, from the old masters to contemporary composers whose names I didn’t recognize.
Friday night’s soloists, both from among the orchestra’s ranks, were the engaging: Scott Richardson on clarinet, and local high school senior and accomplished cellist Jackson Nichols.
The night’s program of short pieces began with Carl Maria von Weber’s popular “Turandot Overture.” The boisterous opera opener surprises at the outset with one lone snare drum.
In contrast to von Weber’s lively “Turandot,” the soulful “Vocalise” by Rachmaninoff soothed with its lovely melodies, full bowing of strings and intermittent bassoon presence. Can you tell I love this piece?
Another recognizable theme was the happy “Intermezzo No. 2 in G Major” by Vasily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov. Maestro Kuhns maintained a moderate tempo showcasing strings, with frequent exposure of uplifting horns and woodwinds.
Next was the less familiar “Five Bagatelles for Clarinet and Strings” by Gerald Finzi, featuring clarinet soloist Richardson. Richardson positioned himself center stage, at once exuding confidence and a disarming nature – a winning combination, I thought. The opening Prelude section’s rapidly changing meter presented challenges to conductor, orchestra and soloist alike. But the spirited movement came off mostly secure, if not perfectly synchronized. The other four sections ranged from soft and heartfelt to light and optimistic to folksy, with the closing Fughetta delivering the excitement not characteristic of the first four sections. All in all, Richardson seemed less a soloist here and more the orchestra’s partner, a fitting relationship given the composition’s demands.
After intermission, student cellist Nichols performed the third movement of Haydn’s “Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major.” Audience members largely recognized the familiar themes as Nichols confidently rendered the solo passages. It’s always a treat to see a young talent given a chance as soloist, and PCO regularly makes such opportunities available.
If anything, Richardson’s second solo number, and the program’s final selection, was even more enjoyable than the first. The Introduction, “Theme and Variations for Clarinet and Orchestra” by Gioachino Rossini featured exciting clarinet glissandos, frequent tempo changes, and a variety of meters and moods, each variation more complex than the one preceding it. One even switched to a doleful minor key, cleverly setting up the frenzied final variation. Soloing here, Richardson inspired. The audience rewarded him and the orchestra with a rousing ovation.
It was a very enjoyable evening of classical music!
The Prescott Chamber Orchestra performs at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 2000 Shepherds Lane, Prescott, AZ 86301. Remaining concerts of the 2016-17 season include April 7 and April 29. Adult tickets are $18 in advance/$20 at the door; student tickets are $4 in advance/$5 at the door. Tickets are available at PrescottChamberOrchestra.com. For more information, email Info@PrescottStrings.com.