The Vallejo Symphony Orchestra (VSO) played the second concert of its 2016-17 season to an impressive crowd at the Hogan Auditorium in Vallejo Sunday. With 364 people attendind, it was the largest audience for the orchestra since 2014, according to VSO board member Tim Zumwalt. “Noon” was the middle concert of the season, falling midway between last November’s “Morning” and the upcoming “Evening,” slated for March. All three concert titles take their names from corresponding Haydn symphonies.
In this, the second concert of his first season at the baton for the Vallejo ensemble, Marc Taddei seemed excited to be presenting not only “the greatest symphony ever written,” as he describes Beethoven’s Eroica, but also a fresh, early work by Haydn and a special performance by a bright young talent in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, featuring prodigy cellist Zlatomir Fung of Massachusetts.
Taddei introduced the day’s first selection, Haydn’s “Noon” or Symphony No. 7 in C Major, as a work of raw talent, written before the classical-era master developed his more mature and refined, signature composition style. The piece is built on a simple, even structure, with distinct variations on a brief melodic theme. Not only does the listener hear much repetition in rhythm and melody throughout, but the piece also lacks power and even variation in mood. It might remind some listeners of early music lessons.
The Haydn piece started out with a really beautiful mixture of winds and strings. The initial measures set a tone of pleasantness and contentment, full of color in its balanced blend of sound. As the movement got rolling, though, those segments of perfect sonic harmony and clear, attuned horns adorning well-synchronized strings became only intermittent.
The slightly more emotional second, adagio movement sounds almost sappy to a 21st century ear. One can feel the relative immaturity of the younger composer. It is refreshing in one sense, in its bright innocence, but it lacks sufficient power, either in humor or passion, to command a respectable level of interest. The symphony performed the youthful music with technical mastery.
In the third, menuetto movement, the horns awaken the ear with renewed splendor as they accentuate the underlying waves of sound from the strings, but surprisingly in this performance, wherever the strings were quiet and the winds had occasion to shine alone, they sounded disappointingly timid.
In its finale, allegro movement, the piece picks up excitement with its faster pace and higher-register, piccolo-adorned melodies – but again, in those measures where the winds had their moments to shine alone, the sound was notably restrained. The movement cried out for something greater, whether in serenity or brave power, and the important wind instruments fell shy.
Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 also begins simply, with a four-note theme presented by the solo cello. The theme is quickly elaborated upon by string sections and builds to pulsating, percussive waves, beating solidly and steadily like a gently rolling sea against the prow of a ship.
Listeners are drawn slyly and smoothly into the more frenetic pace and tone of the second, moderato movement. The even rhythm of the preceding allegretto falls away to a more restless tone, creating a picture of an escapee frantically navigating unknown avenues, some ominous force pressing him urgently forward. In turn, the frenzy of the movement is somewhat calmed by soothing tones from the bassoon, as if a great bird were soaring above the fray, alerting the subject to a route to safety. Horns and clarinets also contribute contrasting sounds of soothing amid the urgency of the solo cello and its accompanying larger strings. As if in response to the encouraging winds, the solo cello takes on an assertive thread leading into the subsequent candenza movement.
This is where Fung had the greatest opportunity Sunday to demonstrate to listeners how he has come to win so many impressive awards at his young age. The 17-year-old cellist showed a mastery of his instrument that was truly a thing to behold. He was lost in the magic of the music – not lost as one may be lost at sea, but lost to the middle school auditorium as he executed his pure talent, maneuvering the strings with exquisite control as he created his own musical mosaic. The candenza was highly creative, yet firmly in keeping not only with the style of the piece but with its story progression as well. Fung’s cadenza measures told the story of a soul in sadness but not despair, vulnerable yet able to grasp onto hope and continue forward on an ever-surer path until it finds a place of solace in the company of kindred spirits.
Beginning during the cadenza, in its latter half, the music takes a turn to long periods of slow quiet, so much so that some in the audience Sunday were lulled to sleep. Even the timpani drum, which pounded annoyingly (as prescribed) in the earlier movements, began to sound overly muted. A surprise punctuation by chimes contributed to the dreamy mood, as the cello notes spanned from the instrument’s highest to its lowest registers, so gently as to maximize the dreamy feel.
The piece concludes with a final, allegro movement, and the orchestra and soloist did increase their volume at that point but not their passion, as if the dreamer awakened to a semi-conscious but never fully awakened state.
Taddei introduced the afternoon’s final selection, Beethoven’s Third, or Eroica Symphony, as “the most important symphony ever written.” That may be true, from a historical perspective, as its clear reflection of ideals from the French Revolution and the very Age of Enlightenment earn it a place in world socio-musical history. It is also unquestionably a magnificent piece of music regardless of its position on a timeline – but whether or not it’s the greatest musical accomplishment in its era of music history, or even the composer’s greatest achievement, is a matter of more varying, subjective opinion.
The piece opens with grandeur, a heralding of its own arrival, or conceivably that of some grand royal procession. Strings quickly predominate, building in waves a pleasant, rolling thunder in varying degrees of power. Winds enhance the exuberant energy with bright, clear tones. Forceful beats from the timpani drum announce the most powerful moments – and Vallejo’s was right on the money in tempo, if excessively loud. The basses and cellos were also exquisite in precision and tone, if a bit too quiet to fully appreciate their sensitive expression.
The second, adagio movement (Marcia funebre, or funeral march) seemed brief and inconspicuous until its end, when a simple and percussive beat signaled its ultimate climax, preparing listeners for the dramatic change to come.
In its third, scherzo movement, flutes lend a confident, joyful aspect, though again, at least from left of center in the audience seating area, they sounded overly quiet. The violins laid the foundation on which the winds danced, and their tuneful response was enthusiastic and lovely.
The fourth, finale movement, an allegro molto, allows a soft staccato to establish the story and once more, the orchestra’s winds responded in lovely but quiet congruence.
The symphony under its new direction is taking shape nicely, and the March season finale promises to be a strong finish.
Coming up next for the symphony season is the Mare Island String Quartet, an offering of VSO Presents, at the First Presbyterian Church in Vallejo on Sunday, Feb. 12. The symphony’s season finale, “Evening,” happens Sunday, March 12 at the Hogan Auditorium. For details visit vallejosymphony.org or call 643-4441.