Music review: Schenectady Symphony at its best in higher-volume pieces

A musical conductor waves his wand

Artistic Director and Conductor Glen Cortese with the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 26, 2020, at Proctors.

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SCHENECTADY – The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra, under artistic director Glen Cortese, presented a challenging program Saturday night at Proctors that included the debut of local cellist Eujeong Choi.

Cortese introduced each of the three works on the program, all of which were composed during the 20th century and represented what Cortese called “a national voice” of the composer’s country.

They began with Aaron Copland’s rarely performed “John Henry.” The four-minute piece is supposedly based on a 19th century legend about a railroad construction worker known for his expertise in laying track who entered a contest against a steam pile driver and won.

Copland wrote the bluesy, colorful little epic in 1940 (revised in 1952) and managed to musically simulate the pounding of the steel and the sounds of a steam engine train coming from a distance and then arriving with great fanfare. The piece was a sweet introduction to a very serious program.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major (1959) is a four-movement work that is filled with “sadness, angst and humor,” Cortese said. It is also one of the great cello concertos known for its technical difficulties and emotional demands on the soloist.

Choi, the Empire State Youth Orchestra 2022 Concerto Competition winner and also the orchestra’s principal cellist, is a 16-year-old junior at Niskayuna High School. A frequent winner or finalist at several other competitions, she is also currently a pre-college student at Juilliard. This was probably her first professional solo appearance.

Dressed in a flowing cobalt blue gown, Choi was the picture of poise and focus throughout. While she played all the notes and did them from memory, she did little emotionally with the music to get inside of it. Much of that can be attributed to her youth. As she matures musically and personally, her understanding especially of this piece, which she has said is one of her favorites, will deepen. This work particularly needs a lot of grit and passion from the soloist to connect to the listener.

The first movement was the best with the orchestra, which for them was also tricky. Cortese kept balances even. In the slower second movement, Choi played out a bit more through the melodies. The third movement is actually a solo cadenza. Choi seemed very introspective here and pacing was slow. By the quicker finale, pitch began to suffer. Connections with the orchestra were not always in sync and sometimes Choi’s lines were lost.

But the small hometown crowd of about 300 people were appreciative and many gave Choi a standing ovation. It was a good first effort for her and she also received a bouquet.

After intermission, the orchestra performed Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major of 1915 (revised 1919). Cortese called the three-movement work “original, unusual music” and that Finland must have a lot of “landscapes” that had “blankets of snow.” The music also featured “grooves of patterns.”

All this was true with long lines in the strings, which sounded very good here; woodwinds were evident in many solo segments and the solid brass provided great volume. There was much atmosphere. But the music is broken up somehow in pieces as it moves throughout the various orchestral sections that must be connected to make it sound whole and have a direction.

Although tempos were good, too often the ensemble work was not cohesive, or the long lines didn’t pull together to build well. Many times, however, when the volume increased, the orchestra sounded best.

The audience liked it and responded enthusiastically. The next concert is May 14 with Mahler and Price.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts, Life and Arts, Schenectady

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