All stars align at Fulton Opera House

Intelligencer Journal
Lancaster New Era
Nov 14, 2009 00:16 EST
The chorus, 130-plus members strong, was the star of Friday night's Lancaster Symphony Orchestra concert at the Fulton Theatre.
Or was it Russian pianist Pavel Nersessian, who shone as soloist and member of the ensemble? Or was it the string section of the orchestra, playing beautifully throughout the program? Or was it traffic cop — make that conductor — Stephen Gunzenhauser, who drew all these disparate elements together into one unforgettable program?

Make that all of the above and then some.
The program highlighted three very different works: from 1909, Ralph Vaughan William's "Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis"; from 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach's Motet No. 3 "Jesu, Meine Freude"; and Ludwig van Beethoven's 1808 Fantasy in C Major for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, the "Choral Fantasy" that gave the program its title.

As an added attraction, Nersessian performed Beethoven's Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, the "Moonlight Sonata," with a silvery touch and hints of tragedy. Dignified restraint gave way to unleashed fury in the sonata's third movement, and the audience responded enthusiastically.

The Moonlight Sonata proved to be a fitting introduction to the Choral Fantasy. The works share an unconventional structure and dramatic arc, saving all the fireworks for the third movements.

The Fantasy starts off with an extended passage for the piano and branches out into dialogues for the piano and different parts of the orchestra. A theme, distinctly reminiscent of the "Ode to Joy" theme of the Ninth Symphony, makes an appearance.
Despite the big orchestra, the piece seems somewhat diffuse — until the quiet sound of 130 people standing up heralds the entrance of the chorus. Then it all gloriously comes together in one joyful ode to the power of poetry and music, a setting of Christian Kuffner's "Gegenliebe." It was, as Gunzenhauser put it in his introduction to the program, music as a vehicle for inspiration, and also enjoyment.
Music as a vehicle for atmosphere (Vaughan Williams) and spirituality (Bach) formed the first part of the program.

The "Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" was given a slow, meditative performance. It had the effect of emphasizing the almost mosaic-like way the variations on the theme fit together, as well as showcasing an outstanding performance from the orchestra's string section.

Concertmaster Netanel Draiblate gave a ravishing performance, as did violinist Carole Armstrong, violist Petula Perdikis and cellist Jesus Morales.
The strings and the chorus joined for a lovely performance of Bach's Motet No. 3. The 11 sections alternate chorales and fugues, and the subject is devotion.
Gunzenhauser praised the chorus — which comprised the Lancaster Symphony Chorus and singers from the Millersville University Chorale, the
Elizabethtown College Concert Choir and the Franklin & Marshall Chamber Singers, all prepared by chorusmaster William Wright — for its German diction and, for all the large size of the chorus, the words did come through.
The orchestra will perform today at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
Pavel Nersessian performs at the piano as Stephen Gunzenhauser, standing right, conducts the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at the Fulton Opera House Friday. (Justin Graybill / Staff)

A joy-filled fantasy
Intelligencer Journal
Lancaster New Era
Nov 15, 2009
By John Jascoll, Sunday News Correspondent

The Lancaster Symphony Orchestra and Chorus concert Friday night at Fulton Opera House was a winner from the delicate opening notes of Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" to the thunderous conclusion of Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy." And we were treated with equal expertise to a Bach motet and a Beethoven sonata along the way.
The performers were in top form as maestro Stephen Gunzenhauser brought us an evening of pleasure and left us hungry for more.
Few composers can express an appreciation for the English psyche so well as Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Tallis (1505-85), another very English composer, specialized in sacred choral music for the Tudor monarchs. Vaughan Williams transforms a simple theme by Tallis into what any Brit would recognize as a timeless yearning for the pastoral beauty of England.
The orchestra was made up entirely of strings, led by a captivating quartet of concertmaster Netanel Draiblate with principals Carole Armstrong (violin II), Petula Perdikis (viola) and Jesus Morales (cello), who returned majestically to Tallis' theme again and again.
Vaughan Williams' fantasia is a purely orchestral piece. Given that the chorus was on hand, it's a shame the concert didn't open with the haunting choral psalm that inspired it. While it would have been unusual to put them together on the same program, it would have been quite in keeping with Gunzenhauser's "Only in Lancaster" mantra. A missed opportunity, indeed.
Nevertheless, the chorus joined us for the Bach motet. There were so many voices -- 131 in all -- that it took a while for everyone to get on stage. Packed tightly in place, it was clear they were there for the duration.
Singers outnumbered the small string orchestra five to one, so it often sounded as if they were singing a cappella. The size of the chorus isn't surprising when you consider it drew from Millersville University Chorale (conducted by Tobin Sparfield), Elizabethtown College Concert Choir (Dr. Matthew Fritz) and the Franklin & Marshall College Chamber Singers (Dr. William Wright). What a challenge faced symphony chorus director Wright, and how ably he rose to it: They all sang as one.
Bach's "Jesu, Meine Freude" ("Jesus, My Joy," 1723) is an intriguing combination of fugue, counterpoint and harmony set amidst memorable tunes. Although written for a funeral, the piece is true to its name and full of joy, a refreshing change from requiem masses that often wallow lugubriously in days of wrath and retribution. It consists of 11 chorales which, we could see from the stilted translation in the program, alternate between a happy adoration of Jesus and the assurance of salvation for believers.
Wright explained in his preconcert lecture that the chorales have the structure of a musical palindrome. That may be, but for the general listener, what's important is that Bach has created a fascinating series of tone poems that convey their message in the feeling of the music. This is a technique he would use to great effect some six years later in his "St. Matthew Passion."
Come the intermission, we were on a musical high, and when we returned to our seats, we were met with a curious sight. The 131-voice chorus was seated, apparently immovably wedged in place, but there wasn't an instrumentalist in sight save for our unassuming Russian-born soloist, Pavel Nersessian, at the Steinway. He proceeded to give us a musical delight that was not on the program: a divine performance of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata, played in its entirety with a subdued and particularly captivating first movement.
The sonata was really an encore in advance because nothing could have followed what came next, the climax of the evening, Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy." When it comes to labeling the piece, it's an enigma. Were we listening to a piano solo, or a piano concerto or a choral work? It's actually all three, opening with a lengthy, thoughtful ramble on the piano that, we're told, Beethoven improvised as he played it at the work's premiere in 1808. Then one instrument after another takes up the theme, bouncing it through a seemingly endless series of variations before the entire orchestra comes into play.
We had a feeling something special was in store, and sure enough the "Ode to Joy" theme that Beethoven would use in the final movement of his Ninth Symphony triumphantly burst forth. The singers then elbowed each other to their feet, and the "Choral Fantasy" came into being.
It's a wonderfully happy, uplifting work. Solo vocalists and chorus celebrate how the joyful harmony of love and peace brings forth "flowers that bloom forever," while harshness and hostility are vanquished by delight. Listening to the vast chorus accompanied by the orchestra and led by Nersessian at the piano was a glorious experience. You just wanted it to go on forever.