Led by its Founder and Artistic Director, Maestro Thomas Crawford, American Classical Orchestra concluded its season on May 18 at Alice Tully Hall with “Romantic Fantasy” – an evening of Romantic music by Rossini, Schumann, Sarasate, and Grieg. The program featured Filipino-American bass-baritone Enrico Lagasca and violinist Rachell Ellen Wong.
The evening began in brilliance and aplomb, unifying orchestra and public in one exhilarating heartbeat through Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Gasps of delight rippled through the audience as Maestro Crawford and ACO dove into the super famous final part of the piece with zest, vigor, and brisk pacing. There is always such anticipation for this finale, often called the “March of the Swiss Soldiers” in English and associated with horse galloping stereotypes, that its preceding three parts might sometimes not be appreciated enough. Yet in Maestro Crawford and ACO’s rendition, each part claimed its own fame. The warmth-infused sounds of period instruments colored the nature-evocative aspects of the work with organic immediacy. In the Prelude, the cello solo set forth an earthy, sylvan richness conjured with majestic grace by principal cellist Myron Lutzke in soulful phrases answered by the cello and bass sections, and followed by a rumbling of timpani that hinted at the impending storm.
In the Storm section, ACO regaled the audience with a superb showcase of Rossini’s dramatic “call-and-answer” interplay between instruments. Before composing his last opera, William Tell, Rossini had already proved his imaginative prowess at musical raindrops, winds, thunder, and raging storms in his works, particularly in The Barber of Seville. Here, in his last opera’s overture, he takes that prowess to another level, and the orchestra delivered his unleashed forces of nature thrillingly. Part three, Ranz des vaches, evoked the calm after the storm in beautifully developed lyrical horn and flute phrases. Throughout the overture, Maestro Crawford and ACO exquisitely showcased Rossini’s genius in dynamic contrasts and playfulness, taking the public on a poetic and adrenaline-filled musical ride.
The word “poetic” can also apply to the next selection on the program; nonetheless, it seems hardly enough to describe it. Grieg’s Den Bergtekne (The Mountain Thrall), the composer’s longest orchestral song, is based on an old Norse poem about a man who, lost in the mountains, is lured to his death by the Erlking’s daughter. The mournful opening sets the stage for this tragic inevitability. Through the song, the orchestration and melodic fragments paint a landscape of fjords and oblique light, of overwhelming mountains, eerie rock formations and forests shrouded in mystery, stirring the imagination to give rise to all sorts of mythical creatures. The work is infused with Norwegian folk music, and even the liveliness of a dance. But that liveliness is joyless, penetrated by a darker lure. Bass-baritone Enrico Lagasca summoned the darkness from the rich core of his voice to contrast with his luminous vocal inflections that rendered some of his phrases iridescent as he weaved a musical spell, ensnaring the listeners into the story’s fatal course. Lagasca succeeded in conveying the tantalizing play between light and darkness through velvety tones and mesmerizing dynamic modulations as the song’s character longs for the joy of love and dance and the comfort of home but he encounters the Erlking daughter’s and the elf maidens’ empty, chilling embraces that lead him to his destruction. Accessing an impressive palette of subtle colors and displaying flawless pronunciation, Lagasca created an otherworldly, anguishing mood of an achingly slow and uncanny deathly heartbreak that haunted the imagination long after the concert.
Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, “Spring,” was introduced to the audience by Maestro Crawford who explained certain motifs and connections to Beethoven and Mendelssohn. It is always enjoyable to keep these explanations in mind, and when the orchestra arrives at the recognizable passages, it’s as though a familiar musical handshake is extended to the listener. Schumann’s bright work provided welcome relief from Grieg’s supernatural drama. Maestro Crawford drew out magnificent colors from the various instrumental sections as he led ACO through the radiant textures and rhythmic vibrancy of the Andante, temperate tenderness of the Larghetto, brilliance and robustness of the Scherzo, and refined charm leading to an exciting finale of the Allegro animato e grazioso.
In her virtuosic, elegant, and sparkling mastery of Pablo de Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy”, violinist Rachell Ellen Wong treated the audience to variations on the familiar musical delights of Bizet’s opera that resounded at once playful and affecting, sprightly and simmering with the passion associated with the character of Carmen. Beauty and clarity of tone, precision and acrobatic octave jumps, exquisite filigree-like delicacy of ornamentation, crisp pizzicato, and meltingly beautiful legato flew out to the audience seamlessly from Wong’s violin to create an electrifying, breathtaking, unforgettable performance.
It was a glorious evening that offered a splendidly surprising partnership between musical eras as period instruments infused Romantic compositions with their own distinct colors and resonances. A program to revel in again and again!
Top photo: ACO Romantic Fantasy – Rachell Ellen Wong and Thomas Crawford
Credit: Maria-Cristina Necula