The Arts, Etc.

Springfield Symphony Orchestra

Opening Night 2009: Red Carpet Gala
Saturday, October 3, 2009 at 8 PM

Kevin Rhodes, Music Director and Conductor

Wagner: Ride of the Valkyries
Liszt: Mephisto Waltz
Liszt: A Faust Symphony

Review by Donna Bailey-Thompson

An hour prior to opening night of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra's 66th season, Music Director Kevin Rhodes sat at the end of the piano bench. "It's great to be back with my Springfield family." Several hundred pre-concerters applauded.

No one shares intelligible informational nuggets faster than Rhodes. He transformed the piano into a black board and the keys into chalk to illustrate what moods chords denote (ignore the pun). A major chord radiates happy feelings whereas a minor chord implies sadness. But a diminished chord, which is further away from an ordered scale, arouses suspicion, even fear: "What's going to happen next?" Thus, he prepared a platform for Franz Liszt's A Faust Symphony in Three Character Sketches after Goethe: (1) Faust, (2) Gretchen, (3) Mephistopheles, and the delineation of the chords - the predominate major for Gretchen; minor with diminishing chords for Faust; and all of the above for Mephistopheles.

During the next 25 minutes, he gave insight not only into the evening's program but the full season. About Mozart and his Great Mass in C minor (March 13), he said, "All Mozart is great; even if not so great, it's still great. This Mozart is really great. It touches the heart in a very special way."

The Red Carpet Gala opened with the audience standing and singing along with the SSO's full-bodied playing of the national anthem. Immediately, Symphony Hall was filled with Richard Wagner's familiar Ride of the Valkyries. This marvel of contradictions exudes and displaces energy. It has been commandeered by, among others, the Third Reich, Apocalypse Now, cereal commercials and ringtones. How bizarre because in the opera, the music honors heroism while the dedicated Valkyries collect the slain warriors from the battlefield so that the honored dead may go on to Valhalla.

The Faust theme was augmented by a rare treat - a piano solo by Maestro Rhodes. Liszt's diabolical Mephisto Waltz No. 1 demands a frenetic, whirling pace, technical virtuosity and passion which the romantic Rhodes met, all the while proving that, all self-deprecating humor aside, he has mastered more than Rhapsody in Blue. The audience was thrilled.

Following intermission, Rhodes expanded his pre-concert talk into a virtual music appreciation seminar (a first in the SSO's history), paving a foundation of familiarity for the audience, most of whom had never heard Liszt's A Faust Symphony. He spoke of the second movement, Gretchen, the Eternal Feminine, and the intimacy with Faust represented by "the oboe and viola, two people playing together."

In an 1869 letter, Liszt wrote: "Faust's personality scatters and dissipates itself; he takes no action, lets himself be driven, hesitates, experiments, loses his way, considers, bargains, and is interested in his own little happiness." What, this reviewer wondered, does Gretchen see in Faust - the notorious bad boy syndrome attraction? Within the Mephistopheles movement, when he's plying Faust with every devilish device he possesses, the strings switched from seductive phrasing to abrasive slice and slash, bringing to mind an infamous shower scene.

The orchestra brought Rhodes' verbal forecast to musical fruition. Selected use of the diminished chord emphasized his warning of "going to hell in a handbasket....It's not a pretty piece, but then, why would it be?" The ultimate confrontation of wills between an inspired Gertrude and a weakened Mephistopheles churn the solarplexis. Thus, through Gertrude's intervention, Faust's soul is saved. In the balcony, the Springfield Symphony's Men's Chorus rose to its feet, their rich voices joined by the exquisite timbre of tenor soloist Alan W. Schneider:

All that is transitory
is only a metaphor;
the unattainable
here comes to pass;
the indescribable,
here it is done;
the Eternal Feminine
draws us onward.

Out of the struggle, came triumph, good over evil. The mighty symphony ended. The roar that erupted complemented the new season's electrifying launching.

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