By Montague Gammon III
Beethoven reaches out with the first four notes of his 5th Symphony, grabs his audience by their figurative lapels, and gives them a shaking that reaches all the way down to their toes.
Certainly the most familiar four notes in classical music, that 1808 vintage “Da Da Da Daahh!” has a head start of some 255 years over any other short musical passage, of any genre, that might contend with it for fame.
Fate, or maybe Old Man Death, pounds on the composer’s door, and Beethoven hammers back with his strong pianist’s hands, forging that ominous sounding “extraordinary little building block” into a joyous, full voiced call of triumph.
Beethoven’s 5th has “probably the most well-known First Movement in the world,” Virginia Symphony Orchestra Musical Director JoAnn Falletta says, making the point that the 5th is so easily recognized that it’s often “taken for granted.”
“I feel we know this piece so well,” says Ms. Falletta, “[that] we don’t recognize what an astonishing masterpiece it is.”
“Extraordinary little building block” was her phrase; VSO Resident Conductor Ben Rous, who will be on the podium for VSO’s three B5 concerts, mid-to-late November, supplied the “triumph” term.
The work’s Second Movement is “one of the most nuanced and subtle” of all symphonic movements, Falletta adds.
Then comes the third movement and its stunning transition, without pause, to the fourth.
The tympani build a suspenseful, grippingly anticipatory tension that turns into a soaring wind and string crescendo.
“An almost frightening moment,” Falletta calls the build-up, with a “glorious” resolution.
“A masterly release of tension,” says Rous.
Verbal descriptions of the total effect are wholly inadequate, certainly without references to hormonal romance and/or intense alkaloids.
Rous is conducting his first classical concert of this season, after his promotion this year from VSO’s Associate Conductor to Resident Conductor. “That was a reflection of the great work he has been doing for us,” says Falletta, praising him as “an ideal associate,” a “brilliant young man” who has “blossomed and grown” under a “steadily increasing…work load,” which she notes has included every sort of concert in the Symphony’s often hectic schedule.
“I’m honored that they have entrusted me with greater responsibilities with musicians that I love working with,” says Rous.
According to Falletta, the affection and respect flow both ways. She describes musicians coming up to him after rehearsals he has attended to ask questions like “How was my solo?” or “Did I blend well [with another musician]?” Rous, she says, is always “helpful and supportive,” and notably “dedicated” to the Orchestra.
Each of the two pieces on the bill with the Beethoven marks some sort of personal first for him. The concert opening Apollo Musagétes, by Igor Stravinsky, (1927-28), “was the first piece that I ever studied as a conductor, for a workshop in about 1999,” Rous says.
The title roughly translates as Apollo, Leader of the Muses. Stravinsky composed the piece for a ballet, which uncharacteristically had two premieres. The first was in Washington, DC, with choreography by Adolph Bolm. A slightly later one in Paris, performed by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, had choreography by a young fellow of 24, named George Balanchine.
Rous says “The piece has all the grace and elegance that we expect from a ballet. Stravinsky was born on the dance stage. He is such a natural composer for dance. If you squint it almost sounds like you are hearing Tchaikovsky.”
Not only will Rous be conducting the Bach Concerto for Oboe d’amore, strings and continuo, in A major, for the first time but it will be his first time conducting from a keyboard. (A harpsichord, by the way.)
The second piece on the program and the shortest, Bach’s concerto is also the oldest and the most mysterious. The oboe d’amore, which is tuned lower than the common oboe but higher than the English horn, was invented in 1720, and Bach started writing for it 3 years later, but the original of this concerto is lost. Bach arranged and re-arranged various works from violin to harpsichord to woodwind, and this concerto is reconstructed from an extant harpsichord piece.
It’s variously languorous, lively, and almost strangely nostalgic and even plaintive sounding; easily recognizable as Baroque, bright and compelling.
Musical history and conductor’s location notwithstanding, all eyes, or more importantly, all ears will be trained on soloist Sherie Aguirre, long-time principal oboe for the Symphony.
Falletta calls Mrs. Aguirre “an extraordinary artist with the highest dedication to excellence,” who possesses “a very compelling very musical approach,” an “anchor” of the woodwinds and a “luminary” performer.
Aguirre’s oboe solos can “take my breath away,” Falletta adds.
An intermission following the oboe d’amore concerto will give audiences some breath-catching time.
Then, after the intermission: ”Da da da dahhhhh!”
Virginia Symphony Orchestra
Nov. 16, Chrysler Hall, Norfolk
Nov. 23, Ferguson Center for the Arts, Newport News
Nov. 30, Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, Virginia Beach