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Concert Reviews
courtesy of Reading Eagle Company

Reading Symphony Youth Orchestra adds sound to the sights of northern Italy
July 17, 2014

Concert review: RSO waxes patriotic at stadium spectacular
July 5, 2014

Andrew Constantine leads Reading Symphony Orchestra in Star-Spangled Spectacular at FirstEnergy Stadium
July 3, 2014

Nearly 500 participants aim to Beat Beethoven! at Alvernia University in Reading
April 28, 2014

The RSO's Saturday night picture show
May 29, 2014

RSO celebrates music of Russia
April 27, 2014

Terrence Wilson joining RSO for all-Russian concert
April 24, 2014

RSO's Broadway revue a blend of big numbers, big-time vocalists
April 13, 2014

RSO teams with Bravo Broadway for Pops concert
April 10, 2014

Guest violinist to perform 'Scottish Fantasy' with Reading Symphony Orchestra
March 20, 2014

Reading Symphony shines spotlight on principal trombonist
February 20, 2014

The RSO meets the Beatles on New Year's Eve
December 26, 2013

Israeli pianist to take on challenging Brahms concerto with the Reading Symphony Orchestra
November  14, 2013

RSO to open with work by composer with local ties
October 15, 2013

An Ode to Joy and the Reading Symphony Orchestra
June 5, 2013

Reading Orchestra’s music unites our community
May 29, 2013

Review: Beethoven's Ninth caps RSO season
May 12, 2013

Renowned violinist Midori to perform with Reading Symphony Orchestra
April 14, 2013

Reading Symphony Orchestra's New Year's Eve concert celebrates music of James Bond movies
December 27, 2012

Reading Symphony Orchestra celebrating 100th anniversary
October 7, 2012

Big screen inspires Reading Symphony Orchestra pops concert
April 26, 2012

Review: Reading Symphony Orchestra reveals new in season finale
May 20, 2012

RSO brings fresh feeling to standard program
October 15, 2011

Reading Symphony Orchestra has surprises in store
October 13, 2011

More diverse composition renews youth orchestra
August 19, 2011

RSO's 'Star-Spangled' show spectacular
July 5, 2011

RSO tackles demanding program
April 17, 2011

RSO at its Peak!!
May 15, 2010

RSO Up to the Challenge!
April 10, 2010

Concertmaster Dazzles!
March 6, 2010

Valentine Weekend 2010!
February 15, 2010

'London Calling!', Symphony's Strings in the Spotlight!
January 23, 2010

Berks Ballet's 'Nutcracker' Elegant and Polished!
December 19, 2009

Glass' tympani concerto confronts time itself at Reading Symphony Orchestra concert
November 14, 2009

RSO Concert a Showcase for Ideal Musical Pairings
October 5, 2009

Storyteller heightens experience at Reading Symphony Orchestra concert
April 18, 2009

RSO multimedia show a crowd pleaser
March 16, 2009

RSO goes Broadway with style
February 14, 2009

'Nutcracker' glistens and shines
December 19, 2008

Reading Symphony Orchestra roars with wild celebration
November 17, 2008

Reading Symphony Orchestra takes audience on vacation
October 6, 2008

Concert a medley of clarity, balance and tempo
March 17, 2008

Thrilling RSO stirs the senses
February 18, 2008

Reading Symphony Orchestra’s strings sing
January 19, 2008

Difficult piece is no match for RSO
November 20, 2007

Reading Symphony, Constantine make beautiful music together
October 8, 2007


Symphony’s Strings in the Spotlight
By Susan L. Pena
Reading Eagle Correspondent
life@readingeagle.com

The Reading Symphony Orchestra transformed itself into the Reading Chamber Orchestra Saturday night in the Santander Performing Arts Center, with a program of works for strings only.

With Andrew Constantine as music director and Christopher Collins Lee as concertmaster, the RSO strings have become a thing of beauty, capable of clarity, nuance and exquisite sound.

This was all on display during Saturday’s concert, which Constantine filled with two exquisite works by British composers of the 20th century and one by Czech composer Josef Suk that epitomized the Belle Epoch.

They opened with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which seemed to emerge out of nowhere like mist and disappear at the end in the same way.

With its austere theme by the Tudor composer, surrounded by beautifully shaped phrases by Vaughan Williams, the piece feels both sacred and sensuous, ancient and modern. With its subtle dynamics and luscious lower strings, the RSO gave a sensitive performance of this magical work.

Gerald Finzi, less well known in this country than Vaughan Williams, wrote his Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra in 1949, almost 40 years after the “Fantasia.”

The soloist for this performance was RSO principal clarinetist Janine Thomas, whose light, liquid tone worked best in the Adagio, where her part was pensive with spontaneous-sounding flourishes.

In the first movement, with its vigorous orchestral introduction, she seemed to be holding back a bit; while her performance was letter-perfect, the movement called for more drama.

But in the finale, which starts ominously but soon breaks into a joyous tune, the clarinet part, with its sunny, bubbly character, seemed written expressly for Thomas. She is a brilliant player.

The program ended with Suk’s Serenade for Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 6, a well-crafted gem that has never been played here before. After giving a brief lecture-demo on the piece, Constantine led the orchestra in a performance full of warmth and delicacy.

From the tuneful, lyrical first movement to the lightas-meringue waltz with its billows and rustling; the shimmering Adagio and finally, a finale that juxtaposed chattering first violins with a dignified melody, the Serenade was gorgeous through and through. Solos by Lee and other principals throughout the evening were a special treat.

The program opened with a wonderful performance of Reinhold Gliere’s “Russian Sailor’s Dance” from “The Red Poppy” by the RSO Junior String Orchestra (grades four through nine), conducted by Richard Ney.


Berks Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ Elegant and Polished
By Susan L. Pena
Reading Eagle Correspondent

entertainment@readingeagle.com


Berks Ballet Theatre’s annual collaboration with the Reading Symphony Orchestra in “The Nutcracker,” which opened Friday night at the Santander Performing Arts Center and will run today at noon and 4 p.m., puts the focus right where it belongs: on the dancing.

Under the direction of BBT artistic director Kelly Barber, who created the choreography and staging along with associate director Amy Scatchard, and Nina Balistrere and Nathan Bland, the overall look is elegant and polished.

The pastels and white of the first act burst into rich jewel tones in the second, bringing Clara’s dream in the Land of Sweets an Oz-like vividness.

As in most BBT productions, the central role of Clara is shared by three dancers. Friday’s Clara was a radiant Bryn Spezialetti, who handled the role with poise and lovely dancing, particularly in her pas de deux with the full-size Nutcracker (Joseph Gery). The role is taken today by Katina Johns at noon and Emylea Wilson at 4.

Led by RSO music director Andrew Constantine, the orchestra played with snap and precision during the overture and throughout the performance, and the Berks Classical Children’s Chorus sang during the “Land of Snow” scene.

In the non-dancing role of Herr Drosselmeyer, Robert Hoffman looked like a cross between Merlin and Father Christmas, with silver hair and beard, an eye patch and an oversized top hat. He played the role with dignity and mystery.

I’ve been waiting for several years to see Hilary Krott dance the Snow Queen, and I was not disappointed. Delicate, light as air, with sparkling technique and effortless extensions, she was perfect. Her partner, guest dancer Alfredo Solivan, was more than up to the job of supporting her.

Guest dancers Tania Muniz Reyes and Robert Rosario, as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, danced a fl awless pas de deux with energy and precision. Rosario’s solo was noble, and Reyes gave her famous dance a fl irtatious air.

As the Dew Drop Fairy, who has expanded solos, Laurel Hyneman danced graciously, with a breadth of gesture that seemed to envelop the entire room. (The role will be danced by Catherine Kreider at noon today).

Kreider danced Spanish with warmth and great musicality; Rachel Hart, as Arabian, beautifully executed the elegant choreography; and Emily Brumbach and guest dancer Matthew Van Buskirk were charming as the Mirlitons.


Glass' tympani concerto confronts time itself at Reading Symphony Orchestra concert
By Susan L. Pena
Reading Eagle Correspondent
entertainment@readingeagle.com

Philip Glass' thrilling "Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra" brought down the house during the Reading Symphony Orchestra's concert Saturday night in the Santander Performing Arts Center, conducted by music director Andrew Constantine.

How could it not, with 15 timpani spread across the front of the stage, manned by two world-class timpanists - Jonathan Haas and the RSO's own principal timpanist, Steven Weiser?

As much fun to watch as it was to hear, the concerto - premiered in 2000 and now one of the most-played contemporary pieces for orchestra - started dramatically in the first movement, labeled simply "Fast."

Fast it was, and at the same time lush in the orchestral part. Hearing the timpani front and center was cathartic, the volume and energy like taiko drumming. Asymmetrical rhythms and interesting supplemental percussion made the movement fly by.

Time stopped in the "Slower" movement, in which the timpani led off in ceremonial style, Haas and Weiser interacting with camaraderie and precision like the friends they are (Weiser is a former student of Haas).

Building in volume, with long, sustained notes in the strings under a stirring timpani part, the emotional impact was overwhelming, and the expressive power of the timpani surprising.

In the long cadenza at the end of the movement, which gave each soloist a chance to display his virtuosity, the first sound was like that of a bull roarer, made by rubbing the mallet on the drum head. Hand-drumming and a variety of mallets and brushes showed what could be done with these wonderful instruments.

The final, "Very Fast" movement was like a complicated engine, played with non-stop energy through the tumultuous ending.

The concerto was a perfect choice for the "New York" part of the RSO's world tour, the theme of this season's subscription concerts. Brash, diverse, innovative - Glass' work embodied everything we associate with that city.

The concert opened with Benjamin Britten's delightful "Simple Symphony for String Orchestra," which is based on pieces the composer wrote between the ages of 9 and 12.

The RSO strings sounded brisk and clean in the first movement, "Boisterous Bourree," a take on the Baroque dance form, played in strict time. The jaunty, rollicking "Playful Pizzicato" demanded precise ensemble, which the strings delivered, and called for the cellists to strum their instruments like guitars.

"Sentimental Sarabande" was just that: sweet, songful melodies, sumptuously bowed. And plenty of nervous energy was released in "Frolicksome Finale," whipped into a frenzy at the end.

Sir Edward Elgar's charming "Chanson de Matin" opened the concert's second half, conducted by Sweet Street founder Sandy Solmon, winner of the Golden Baton. She carried out her mission with grace, and seemed to be having the time of her life. The orchestra sounded fine.

Hector Berlioz's ever-popular "Symphonie Fantastique" ended the program, with Weiser and Haas rejoining the orchestra for the "March to the Scaffold."

Constantine led the RSO through this ode to obsessive love, with balance, perfect tempos, elegance and, in the "Dream of the Witches' Sabbath" finale, wildness that once again brought down the house.

In the shepherds' duet in "Scene in the Country," Terence Belzer (offstage) and Stephen Labiner created heavenly sounds; Janine Thomas's clarinet solo was equally gorgeous.


RSO Concert a Showcase for Ideal Musical Pairings
By Susan L. Peña
Reading Eagle correspondent

entertainment@readingeagle.com

The Reading Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Andrew Constantine, launched its world tour — the theme of this season’s subscription concerts — with a trip to Prague Saturday evening in the Santander Performing Arts Center.

It was a concert full of ideal musical pairings: violinist Elissa Lee Koljonen with Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B minor; Constantine with Elgar, his favorite composer; Constantine with Antonin Dvorak—they were meant for each other; and the concerto with Dvorak’s sublime Symphony No. 7 in D minor.
And all the while, the orchestra itself played with the utmost heart and soul. All the sections were consistently fine, and they picked up on the excitement and commitment of both soloist and conductor.

Elgar has been somewhat neglected over the years; Constantine has been redressing that wrong by introducing his works into the RSO’s repertoire since he became music director.

The Violin Concerto has never before been performed by the RSO; it is new to Koljonen as well. All the musicians have obviously embraced the piece, with its sweeping gestures and intimate melodies that echo Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

Koljonen played with every fiber of her being, giving an intense, powerful performance of this highly emotional showcase for violin. She was most eloquent in her sensuous lower range, which had the depth of a viola, during the first two movements.
In contrast, her highest harmonics were produced with incredible delicacy and control, and her performance of the cadenza in the final movement had a supernatural quality.

Constantine and the orchestra were with her every step of the way, from the passionate introduction to the majestic brass at the end of the finale.

Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 is full of the most exquisite orchestral writing for every section of the orchestra. This is particularly true of the second, adagio movement, which opens with clarinets and bassoons; a sweet flute duet, like birdsong, keeps emerging from the orchestral fabric; and the horns and trumpets sound like a sonorous organ in their short interlude.

All of this was beautifully executed, while the strings produced angst and release and lone percussionist Steven Weiser created tension on the timpani.

In the Scherzo, an elegant and somewhat feverish waltz was given the lightest touch; the finale, as dark as anything Dvorak wrote, was given emotional depth.
Constantine managed to balance everything, leading the RSO in one of its finest performances ever. A bon voyage indeed.


Storyteller heightens experience at Reading Symphony Orchestra concert
By Susan L. Peña
Reading Eagle correspondent

Contact Susan L. Peña at entertainment@readingeagle.com

The beauty of Czech music and the ancient power of storytelling combined to create an interesting evening for concertgoers at the Reading Symphony Orchestra concert Saturday night in the Santander Performing Arts Center.

Music director Andrew Constantine is a master at going out on a limb to enhance the concert experience.

Something like this could easily go too far and become a distraction rather than an enhancement; but it didn’t, thanks to the reserve and wry humor of storyteller Jon Spelman, who introduced each of the four pieces.

He told the story of the vengeful female warrior, Sarka, wasting no words; the corresponding section of Bedrich Smetana’s "Ma Vlast" came startlingly to life when the orchestra played it.

The audience could visualize each scene, as in the best radio drama.
Spelman did the same for Antonin Dvorak’s exquisite tone poem, "The Wood Dove," based on a poem by Karl Erben; he read the poem, alternating it with the RSO playing the main musical themes, followed by the full rendition of the piece.

The Suite from Leos Janacek’s opera "The Cunning Little Vixen" received a similar treatment, as did Smetana’s "The Moldau," also from "Ma Vlast." Constantine wrenched every bit of drama from all the pieces, bringing out the passion and fury of "Sarka," the vivid musical imagery of "The Wood Dove" and "The Moldau," and the magic, charm and sparkle of "Vixen."

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was what a wonderful piece "The Wood Dove" turned out to be.

Most of the audience had probably never heard it, since it is rarely performed — who knows why? — and judging from the reaction, they loved it.

The RSO gave a wonderful performance of it, beginning with the delicate opening funeral march, with achingly lovely playing by principal trumpet Frank Ferraro Jr.

The jaunty brass and lyrical strings of the second movement; the joyous wedding music with an underlying tambourine; the woodwind dove call and disturbing "guilt" motif in the climactic fourth movement; and the nuanced playing in the Epilogue made this piece memorable indeed.

It was obvious the musicians thoroughly enjoyed the Janacek suite; they seemed to revel in its crisp, vibrant opening, its piquant waltz, its quirky rhythms and energetic conclusion.

"The Moldau," an evergreen favorite, couldn’t have been played better.

At the beginning of the concert, the Reading Symphony Youth Orchestra Sinfonia joined the RSO for a grand performance of the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, "Little Russian."

Contact Susan Peña: entertainment@readingeagle.com.


RSO multimedia show a crowd pleaser
By Susan L. Peña
Reading Eagle correspondent

Contact Susan L. Peña at entertainment@readingeagle.com

Colliding galaxies and thunderstorms were just part of the excitement Saturday night in the Santander Performing Arts Center when the Reading Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Andrew Constantine, explored visual imagery in music.

What listeners see when they hear music is highly personal and private for the most part. But in this concert, the images were supplied by the Hubble Space Telescope for one piece, and by the composer for the other.

Dr. Mario Livio, a senior astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute and the head of the institute's office of public outreach, provided commentary for Christopher Theofanidis' "Rainbow Body," followed by a performance of the piece with magnificent images of dying stars, an exploding star and colliding galaxies projected on a screen above the orchestra.

According to the composer, the piece is based on a melody by the medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen, and the Tibetan Buddhist myth that enlightened beings disappear in a burst of colors when they die - similar to stars, Livio said.

Making creative use of percussion and trombones, the piece progressed from ominous to celestial to cataclysmic, with shimmering strings and explosive passages. The accompanying images were dizzying, colorful, psychedelic. The experience was breathtaking and enormously popular with the capacity crowd.

Ludwig van Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony, unlike most, has a story line by the composer familiar to anyone who has seen the film "Fantasia." The RSO gave a transparent, fluid performance. The first movement, describing an arrival in the country, was like looking down through crystal-clear water to see all the fish and pebbles.

The "Scene at the Brook" featured delicate woodwind playing, with fine solos from all the principals, over a cushion of ravishing strings. The "merry gathering of peasants" was pure pleasure, with a robust sound and lightning tempo. The storm was vivid, the final "shepherd's song" achingly lovely.

The concert began with Maurice Ravel's homage to his Baroque predecessor, "Le Tombeau de Couperin." The RSO handled this difficult piece with precision and subtlety, from the murmuring commotion of the Prelude to the piquant Rigaudon. Again, the woodwinds were highlighted, particularly oboist Terence Belzer, who played with grace.

The concert also provided the debut of the Reading Symphony Youth Orchestra's Philharmonia division, which features ninth- and tenth-grade string players, with a lively performance of Georges Bizet's "Farandole" from "L'Arlesienne" Suite No. 2. They were led by conductor Brian Mishler.


RSO goes Broadway with style
By Susan L. Peña
Reading Eagle correspondent

Contact Susan L. Peña at entertainment@readingeagle.com


The Reading Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Andrew Constantine, pulled out all the stops Saturday night for their Valentine’s Pops Concert in the Santander Performing Arts Center.
The audience got an evening of polish, romance and good old-fashioned Broadway-style pizzazz.
The theme was actually supposed to be the golden age of Hollywood musicals, but the feel of the concert was deeply New York, with three stars of the Broadway stage: singer Debbie Gravitte and singer-dancers Joan Hess and Kirby Ward.
The RSO, sounding crisp and energized, opened with Richard Whiting’s “Hooray for Hollywood” from the 1937 film “Hollywood Hotel,” arranged by Reading native Bill Holcombe. He arranged many of the songs on the program and was in the audience.
From there the three guests took over, proving that the age of the multitalented trouper is not over.
Gravitte has the quintessential Broadway belt, fueled by a seemingly endless supply of breath and capable of infi nite expression when necessary, as in the penultimate number, “My Funny Valentine.”
She also sang Irving Berlin’s “Mr. Monotony” from “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” for which she won a Tony in 1989. Given barely any melody line, she produced a fi nely calibrated performance.
She sparkled in the Latinflavored “Johnny One-Note” and “Tico Tico”; steamed up the room with “Blues in the Night,” featuring principal trumpeter Frank Ferraro Jr.; sizzled in “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”; and raised the roof with “Blow Gabriel Blow” from Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.”
Ward, who is built like Fred Astaire and has the same wedge-shaped face, is a superb all-around dancer; Hess, a long-limbed and glamorous blond, is a graceful partner; their singing perfectly captures the style of the era. They tapped their way through “I Won’t Dance”; they were breathtaking in the romantic, haunting “Monte Carlo Ballet,” one of Berlin’s masterpieces; they did a little eccentric dancing in George Gershwin’s “Shall We Dance?” and they reconstructed Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ legendary “Cheek to Cheek” dance, executed fl awlessly. The three guests collaborated on “Another Opening/ No Business Like Show Business”; “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails/Steppin’ Out”; and the finale, “I Got Rhythm.” Ward tapped to Gershwin’s “Slap That Bass,” with principal Douglas Mapp dialoguing with him on bass. The RSO gave beautiful performances of Nacio Herb Brown’s “Singin’ in the Rain” and Gershwin’s “Crazy for You” overture, which included a brisk, jaunty “I Got Rhythm” and a light-as-air “Embraceable You.”


'Nutcracker' glistens and shines
By Susan L. Peña
Reading Eagle correspondent

Contact Susan L. Peña at entertainment@readingeagle.com


Berks Ballet Theatre’s annual “Nutcracker,” presented in collaboration with the Reading Symphony Orchestra in the Santander Performing Arts Center, opened Friday night in a production that glistened with new costumes and shone with dancing of high quality throughout.
The ballet will have two more performances, today at 2 and 7:30 p.m.
Under the direction of BBT’s artistic director Kelly Barber, who also choreographed and staged the production with help from associate director Amy Scatchard and BBT alumna Nina Balistrere, this was a “Nutcracker” that moved like the wind — even in traditionally slow spots like the Act 1 party scene and the “Waltz of the Flowers” in Act 2 (given an energetic spin by Balistrere).
RSO music director Andrew Constantine leads some of the RSO’s finest musicians in the pit, providing a superb reading of the score and adding the real voices of Berks Classical Children’s Chorus at the end of Act 1 in place of the synthesized choral part used in the past.
Another welcome addition this year is the casting of a dancer, Marko Westwood (who has appeared with BBT numerous times), as Herr Drosselmeyer. With his top hat and cane, his is an enigmatic, lonely magician whose special bond with his niece, Clara, is touching.
As Clara, Kaitlin Heilenman is radiant and already a strong, poised dancer, holding her own in every pas de deux.
BBT always invites guest artists, particularly for the male parts, and this year’s choices are all fine. In his roles as the male Harlequin Doll and a Mirliton (with Emily Brumbach and Melanie Koch), Matthew Powell is quick and springy. As the Snow King and Arabian, Victor Gonzalez is a gracious partner. As the Cavalier, Nathan Bland returns to BBT and once again proves to be an elegant dancer.
Flavia Garcia, a member of Dance Theatre of Harlem, is charming and expressive as the Sugar Plum Fairy; she fully inhabits the music with every gesture.
B B T ’s o w n C a t h e r i n e Kreider is light and passionate as the Snow Queen, and this year’s “Land of Snow” scene is the best in a number of years. Elizabeth Shanaman, as the Dew Drop Fairy, gives a calm, leisurely performance.
Sarena Kabakoff dances with plenty of snap as the lead Spanish dancer; Hilary Krott is perfection itself as the Arabian Princess, with her amazing extensions and effortless, cobralike lifts.
Joey Hoke’s costumes are breathtaking, and the new backdrop for Act 2 is a nice touch.


Reading Symphony Orchestra roars with wild celebration

The ensemble has fun performing contemporary composer Michael Daugherty’s “Hell’s Angels” to help celebrate the Reading Public Museum’s “Born To Be Wild” exhibit of motorcycle design.

By Susan L. Peña
Reading Eagle correspondent

Contact Susan L. Peña at entertainment@readingeagle.com

     Bikers, bassoons and a giant Harley formed the centerpiece of the Reading Symphony Orchestra concert Saturday night in the Santander Performing Arts Center, amidst roars from the percussion section and cheers from the audience.
     To help celebrate the Reading Public Museum’s current exhibit, “Born To Be Wild: Adventures in the Art of Motorcycle Design,” RSO music director Andrew Constantine programmed American contemporary composer Michael Daugherty’s “Hell’s Angels” for Bassoon Quartet and Orchestra, and the result almost literally brought down the house.
     The concert opened with Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” from the opera “Prince Igor,” and ended with Stravinsky’s “Petrushka, Ballet in Four Tableaux,” creating an unforgettable evening of musical narrative.
     From the angelic woodwind ensemble over pizzicato strings to the goose bump-producing waltz to the galloping fi nale, all equal parts glitter and velvet, the  “Polovtsian Dances” were a complete success.
     But anticipation ran high for “Hell’s Angels,” and the opening alone was worth the price of a ticket, as bassoonists Valerie Trollinger Flohr, Gail Ober and Darryl Hartshorne, and contrabassoonist Michael Pedrazzini came striding in from the back of the auditorium in leather jackets and bandanas, accompanied by the roar of an engine, revving cymbals and plenty of other noise from the stage.
     Completing their “gang” was an assortment of leather-clad rapscallions, including Mayor Thomas McMahon, who escorted the quartet to their place of honor.
     All this would have been fun in any case, but the piece itself happens to be wonderful and incredibly challenging, both to play and to hear. Its quirky rhythms — parts of it sound like Bernstein’s “West Side Story” — its clever use of percussion, including a thundersheet, and its many contrasts make it fascinating from beginning to end.
     “Hell” is represented by dissonance, rumblings and shrieks; “Angels” make their appearance intermittently with harp, celesta and chimes. Throughout, the soloists played with gusto and consummate skill; the orchestra, led by Constantine in jeans and a black Harley shirt, rose to every challenge.
After intermission, the Reading Symphony Junior Strings Orchestra, conducted by Richard Ney, gave a lovely performance of music by Harry Gregson-Williams from the fi lm “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
     The RSO ended with an enthralling performance of “Petrushka,” full of vivid colors and some of the most expressive playing I’ve heard from this orchestra. Hearing it was like watching the ballet.
     There were many fi ne solos throughout, but a few stood out: Flutists Mary Berk and Anne Weiser shone in their beautiful duet; pianist Rebecca Gass Butler did a heroic job; trumpet principal Frank Ferraro Jr. spilled out molten gold.
 

Reading Symphony Orchestra takes audience on vacation

The RSO kicks off its 96th season with a conservative program featuring two works written while their composers were on holiday.

By Susan L. Peña
Reading Eagle correspondent

Contact Susan L. Peña at entertainment@readingeagle.com .

     Andrew Constantine, music director of the Reading Symphony Orchestra, chose to launch the orchestra’s 96th season Saturday night with a conservative program, in contrast to the rest of the season, which will be anything but.
    Playing to a nearly full house in the Santander Performing Arts Center, the RSO was in top form playing three perennial favorites, two of which were written while the composers were on vacation (hence the title “Working Vacations.”
    After “The Star Spangled Banner,” the first bars heard were foreboding and turbulent — appropriate to these times — and Constantine led the orchestra into Beethoven’s Overture to “Coriolan.”
    Their strong, muscular sound in the first theme was offset by their lyricism in the sweet, pleading second theme. They captured the drama of a piece that could have developed into an amazing opera.
    Violinist Elena Urioste, a recent graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, was the guest soloist for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, written when the composer was vacationing at Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
    At times Urioste seemed to be channeling the great David Oistrakh as she gave an extremely emotional performance of this demanding work. Her deep, lush sound; her clean passagework with each note an individual, sparkling drop; her confidence and delicacy all point to a great artist at the beginning of what should be a successful career.
    Never mind that her highest harmonics were a little flat in the first-movement cadenza — the rest of it more than made up for it with her touch of coquetry; and the moment when she converged with the orchestra was a sweet one.
    The RSO principals who partnered with her in duets and trios played with zest and personality, and together Urioste and the orchestra gave an exciting finale, with every detail clear.
    Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major, written when he was enjoying a summer in the village of Portschach in southern Austria, has a pastoral quality in its first movement that is echoed in the rustic, Czechsounding peasant dances of the third movement.
    Constantine led the RSO from a distant stillness to a full, throbbing orchestral sound. The players sounded so alive, responding to his every flick of the baton.
Details abounded as the sound was balanced and transparent. The woodwind ensembles in the second movement were lovely, although the French horn was a bit ragged in spots.
    The third movement — my favorite — also featured woodwinds prominently, and the whole orchestra played it with remarkable grace. The rousing final movement brought the audience to its feet.
    Interestingly, the concerto and the symphony were written within a year of each other, and both share the same tonality, facts which gave the concert a sense of unity. It was like being immersed in a grand, sprawling 19th-century novel.
 

Concert a medley of clarity, balance and tempo

Reading Symphony Orchestra music director Andrew Constantine shakes things up by rearranging the musicians on the stage Saturday night.

By Susan L. Peña
Reading Eagle correspondent

Contact Susan L. Peña at entertainment@readingeagle.com .


     For the Reading Symphony Orchestra’s concert Saturday night in the Santander Performing Arts Center, music director Andrew Constantine did a rare thing: He rearranged the musicians on the stage.

     It’s one of many ways in which he has caused the audience to prick up their ears and listen to music with a fresh perspective. For me, as a pianist, having the bass notes on my left is as natural as having my fork on the left and knife on the right.

     Still, having the basses and cellos on the left, and the first and second violins facing each other, forced me to hear the RSO in a new way. And it could be my imagination, but it seemed the musicians related to each other differently as well.

     They opened and closed with two of my personal favorite pieces of music; in between they were joined by cellist Yumi Kendall for Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, in an intimate performance that felt more like chamber music than an orchestral concert.

     The RSO’s performance of Prokofiev’s enchanting Symphony No. 1 in D Major (“Classical”) combined precision with an effortless ebullience. The light and utterly transparent Allegro, the crystalline Larghetto and the droll Gavotte all led up to the Finale, whose speed would have been reckless for an orchestra less capable than this one.

     In the Cello Concerto, Kendall played the first movement with energy and expression, and a wonderful tone, giving her solos an improvisational quality. The effect of the woodwinds over her gorgeous trills was heart-stopping, and in the final movement she took the cello from its lowest to highest range with delicate control.

     Kendall, who is assistant principal cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, sat in with the cello section for Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor.

     It was easy to see why she would want to be part of this performance, which Constantine led brilliantly, evoking plenty of nervous energy from the players in the first movement and again in the finale.

     In between the orchestra achieved a sweet melancholy through the long, graceful lines of the Andante, and operatic drama in the Menuetto.

     Throughout this sublime symphony — one of the greatest in the repertoire — the players and Constantine achieved clarity, balance and just-right tempos. The RSO has never sounded better.
 

Reading Symphony Orchestra’s strings sing

The RSO’s lush string section is showcased during performances of three pieces never before played by the ensemble.

By Susan L. Peña
Reading Eagle Correspondent

Contact Susan L. Peña at entertainment@readingeagle.com


The string section of the Reading Symphony Orchestra has gradually blossomed over the past decade, reaching an unprecedented lushness since 2002 when Christopher Collins

Lee became concertmaster.

Through his efforts, new music director Andrew Constantine, the section has become a thing of beauty, capable of almost any feat required of it and as responsive as a sleek new sports car.

All of this was in evidence Saturday night when the RSO strings were featured in the subscription concert at the Santander Performing Arts Center, conducted by Constantine.

The three pieces chosen for this concert had never before been performed by the RSO; they made up one of the most enjoyable programs within memory, played with the precision and nuance of a string quartet.

The centerpiece of the program was Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra and Timpani in G minor, performed with guest soloist Randel Wolfe on the organ and the ever-meticulous RSO timpanist, Steven Weiser.

Written in the form of a fantasia, with kaleidoscopic mood changes, this work is a unique masterpiece and was given a dramatic, often mystical performance by the ensemble.

Wolfe, a dynamic, technically adept player who is director of music at Trinity Lutheran Church, delivered a thrilling reading of his solo parts, and provided a fine substitute for the winds in the tutti sections.

The concert opened with British composer Gustav Holst’s “St. Paul’s Suite for Strings,” a four-part piece that began with a crisp, rollicking jig, followed by an elfin Ostinato — little whirlwinds under flickering melodies; an exotic Intermezzo and a Finale that weaves a morris dance with “Greensleeves.”

The RSO ended with an utterly ravishing performance of Dvorak’s “Serenade for Strings,” a delicious, five-movement piece full of captivating melodies. Like many of the composer’s chamber works, this uses Slavonic folk styles as its base, scored to showcase strings at their most expressive.

Constantine served up a perfectly balanced, always interesting banquet designed to lift the spirits out of the winter doldrums.


Thrilling RSO stirs the senses

By Susan L. Peña
Reading Eagle Correspondent

Contact Susan L. Peña at entertainment@readingeagle.com .

If there ever was a concert designed to show off an orchestra, it was the one given by the Reading Symphony Orchestra Saturday night in the Santander Performing Arts Center, led by music director Andrew Constantine.

It featured a trio of composers who were brilliant orchestrators — Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Aaron Copland — and the RSO gave the audience an evening filled with thrilling sound and beautiful playing.

Actually, Modest Mussorgsky wrote “Night on Bald Mountain,” which was used for the end of the movie “Fantasia,” but it was Rimsky-Korsakov who created the final version heard in concert halls today.

When its opening little swirls of strings and woodwinds began the concert, I literally got chills, and the low brass chords were like the voice of doom. The musicians played with demonic glee until, with the sounding of the chimes, day broke and serenity reigned.

It was a dramatic beginning to a concert full of theatricality.

Guest violinist Jonathan Carney, the concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, performed Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35, an unabashedly romantic work in which the composer incorporated themes from his film soundtracks of the 1930s: “Another Dawn,” “Juarez,” “Anthony Adverse” and “The Prince and the Pauper.”

The piece sounds like really good movie music, but Korngold practically invented the genre.
The piece is beautifully constructed, difficult and contains some interesting effects; the middle slow movement sounds a bit like Rachmaninoff.

Carney’s violin had a golden sound, and his strong, sweet playing fit the concerto perfectly. He and Constantine have been friends for years, performing together often, and it showed in this performance, which was a wonderful example of everyone pulling together.

The pyrotechnics for violin — the delicate harmonics and other challenges — were almost beside the point; Carney never lost sight of the sweeping lines and, in the finale, the lightness this piece requires.

The juniors and seniors of the Reading Symphony Youth Orchestra joined the RSO for a rousing performance of Dvorak’s “Slavonic Dance No. 6,” Op. 46; Carney sat in with the string section here and in the final piece on the program.

This was Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” suite, a full orchestration taken from his ballet, commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in 1943-44 for Martha Graham, originally for a 13-piece chamber orchestra.

As in the first two pieces, the playing was so exceptional that it was like hearing the familiar work for the first time — the sound of a clear dawn in the mountains, unfolding like a flower.

Constantine led the players with the most delicate touch, so that the entire piece felt like hovering on the brink of something, awakening the senses.

Copland was a genius at taking plain little tunes and making something extraordinary of them; the famous variations on “Simple Gifts” are a case in point, and the RSO enriched them with silvery woodwinds, soft brass, soaring strings and a glorious big orchestral sound. The whispered ending left the audience holding its collective breath.


Difficult piece is no match for RSO

The Reading Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Andrew Constantine, proves up to the challenge of performing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 6 in E minor.


By Susan L. Peña
Reading Eagle Correspondent

Contact Susan L. Peña at entertainment@readingeagle.com 


The Reading Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Andrew Constantine, proved up to a significant challenge he laid before them: the performance of what has been rumored to be one of the most difficult pieces they have played.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 6 in E minor was the work in question Saturday night in the Santander Performing Arts Center, and it also challenged the capacity audience.

Written in 1948 as a response to the sufferings of World War II, the piece contains few hints of the benign, pastoral Vaughan Williams with whom most people are familiar. As Constantine indicated in his opening remarks, this piece reflects the composer’s experiences with World War II and his fears of what the dawning nuclear age would bring, as well as the struggles of his countrymen during the war he had just witnessed.

Opening with a cataclysm in the brass and angry cascades of strings, this is violent music, requiring furious playing in the first and third movements. The stabbing chords; the tricky “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” rhythms; the glimpses of lush, folk-tinged melody all converge in an ominous shadow leading into the bleak, agonized second movement.

The insane-sounding Scherzo, with its rare tenor saxophone solo impeccably played by Sam Lorber, demanded much energy as it marched to its brutal end.
But the most difficult movement is the final Epilogue, played pianissimo throughout. With its washes of creepy sound and tune fragments wafting in and out like bits of floating ash, it would make the perfect accompaniment to Cormac Mc-Carthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, “The Road.” I found myself holding my breath, amazed that such a large orchestra could produce such delicate filaments of sound.
It was a tour de force for the RSO and Constantine, and left the audience stunned.

The second half of the program began with Debussy’s Prelude to “L’Apres-midi d’un faune,” with wonderful solos from the woodwind principals, in a pulsating interpretation more earthy than ethereal, which was altogether appropriate.

They ended with Max Bruch’s beloved Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, featuring the RSO’s own concertmaster, Christopher Collins Lee, as soloist. This performance was dedicated to the late RSO board member, John Henry Funk, who suggested Lee play it.
Lee, with his sweet, distinctive tone and Romantic sensibility, was the perfect interpreter for this piece, which epitomizes the Romantic concerto: dramatic, eloquent, both poignant and triumphant, reveling in the pyrotechnical capabilities of the instrument.

The performance, by both Lee and the orchestra, was obviously a labor of love, and the audience left having journeyed from despair to elation.


Reading Symphony, Constantine make beautiful music together
The orchestra’s new music director makes his debut Saturday night in a concert of works by beloved Russian composers Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

By Susan L. Peña
Reading Eagle Correspondent


Reading, PA - Conductor Andrew Constantine made his debut as the Reading Symphony Orchestra’s new music director in a concert featuring works by two of the most beloved Russian composers: Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

The first subscription concert of the season, held Saturday night in the Santander Performing Arts Center, featured the formidable young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, in a reading that made the old war horse seem newly composed.

The rest of the program was devoted to Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27, revealing the RSO in top form, with Constantine drawing from it a precise, wonderfully balanced, deeply expressive performance.

From the full-bodied opening of the Concerto to its bighearted conclusion, Wang proved why she has become such a talked-about artist. Her perfect technique and big, warm sound are only the beginning.

She played with soul and a sweet seductiveness in the lyrical sections, displaying a complete understanding of the Romantic sensibility; then she would spring into tigerish attacks that knocked the audience back in their seats. She approached the work with a sense of discovery, giving it an improvisatory feel, and she rode the fast sections like a racehorse.

Amidst all the bravura, there were moments of breathtaking quiet, like the beginning of the second movement with its flute solo, beautifully played by principal Mary Berk, over tiny pizzicato strings unfolding like a flower into a gentle dialogue between piano and woodwinds, and a fine cello solo by principal Douglas McNames.

Such attention to detail, and the musicians’ response to Constantine’s faultless direction, made this a thoroughly captivating performance.

The Rachmaninoff symphony, with its Wagnerian chromatic tension and melancholy mood, seemed to erupt from underground, as the basses opened with a rich, rumbling tone.

There was beautiful playing throughout the tormented first movement, the galloping “Dies irae” theme of the second movement, the well-known Adagio (featuring a gorgeous clarinet solo by principal Janine Tho mas), and the sparkling finale.

Constantine and the RSO created moments of such stillness that time seemed to stop and no one breathed; then he would unleash a burning energy out of nowhere. It was an incredible performance.

It seems the two will make a fine team.

•Contact Susan L. Peña at entertainment@readingeagle.com.

 


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