Berkshire Symphony season finale offered winning solos from a winners' circle

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WILLIAMSTOWN - The Berkshire Symphony concert began and ended with works proclaiming the Dies irae, the medieval plainsong chant invoking the Day of Wrath. The pairing made a paradoxical set of bookends for a program that brimmed with youthful vitality, and sometimes poetry.

The Friday night concert was the orchestra's annual showcase of winners from of the Williams College student soloist competition. Three seniors and a junior made impressive showings in works ranging from a thunderous Liszt showpiece to a concerto for pipa, a Chinese lute.

To top it off, the student-professional orchestra, imaginatively led by director Ronald Feldman, gave an exhilarating performance of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances. The orchestra was in excellent form throughout the evening in Chapin Hall, also lending firm, if sometimes excessively deferential, support to the four soloists. Each soloist received an enthusiastic ovation before and after performance, especially from a student cheering section in the back of the hall.

It was no surprise that the soloists were talented and well prepared. Each year, the victors' program, which concludes the orchestra's season, demonstrates that classical music is a vital component of a liberal arts education.

Varied interests count, too. In their bios, three of the soloists listed double majors, combining music with either psychology, math or environmental studies. Senior pipa player Angela Chan, the environmentalist, amusingly added, "These days, Angela can be found avoiding her schoolwork, ringing the Thompson Chapel bells, and eating string beans."

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Senior pianist Sebastian Black led off the talent parade with a blistering performance of Liszt's "Totentanz" ("dance of death"), a set of variations on the Dies irae, which he played, with heavy pedaling, on Williams' huge Steinway grand. While subtlety was not always the thing, his technical command of the crunching chords, furious scales and intervals of poise was outstanding in its own right. The mini-concerto turns an old fresco of the Grim Reaper into music. When music, however well played, becomes bombast is another story.

With an agile voice, senior soprano Erin Kennedy neatly portrayed the youthful innocence of the enraptured but misled Gilda in the aria "Caro nome" ("dear name") from Verdi's "Rigoletto." With smooth tone and avoidance of schmaltz, junior violinist Jeffrey Pearson made good on the romantic ardors of Chausson's "Poeme."

In the absence of significant Western music for her instrument, pipa virtuoso Chan revived a propaganda piece from post-Mao China, "Little Sisters of the Grassland." Three composers teamed, in the era's fashion of committee composition, to create this five-movement tale of two children who heroically save their commune's sheep from a blizzard. That the music sounds like a medium-grade soundtrack takes nothing away from the dazzling array of effects Chan drew from her plaintively twanging instrument, which was amplified to be heard in Chapin's spaces.

Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, a symphony in all but name, choreographed by Peter Martins among others, sounds at times like Tchaikovsky, then at times like a peek into modernity. Hints of the Dies irae run through the piece, only to blare out in full force at the end. Joy, sadness or both? The responsive performance poured meaning into ambiguity.                                                                                                                                                                     

At concert's end, Feldman brought veteran oboist Carl Jenkins to the front of the stage for recognition on his retirement from the orchestra. The celebration of youth culminated in a celebration of age.

At concert's end, Feldman brought veteran oboist Carl Jenkins to the front of the stage for recognition on his retirement from the orchestra. The celebration of youth culminated in a celebration of age.


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