The Roanoke Symphony opened its Masterworks series under the baton of David Stewart Wiley at the Berglund Performing Arts Theatre Saturday night before a crowd of about 950. Featured soloist of the “Celebrating America” concert was Russian-born pianist Yuliya Gorenman. The program consisted of familiar works by George Gershwin as well as recent pieces by Robert W. Smith and Michael Daugherty.
As is the custom, the full orchestra started the first concert of its new season with Wiley’s own arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The orchestra then played George Gershwin’s popular “An American in Paris.” Here Wiley brought out all the varied colors of the score, especially enlivened by an obvious commitment to the blues elements. His flexible approach to rhythm, sometimes hurried and sometimes relaxed, worked well, and the overall conception was both original and effective. To complement the music, the audience was treated to projected photos of Paris in the 1920s as well as images of Gershwin, including one of him with the taxi horns that are famously employed in the piece.
To close out the first half, “Night Owl,” a relatively new work by Michael Daugherty, captured the audience’s attention. The piece has three movements, all inspired by the photography of O. Winston Link, whose obsession with trains produced evocative images of locomotion. During the performance, many of these wonderful photos were projected to match the changing moods of the music. The work has a truly cinematic sweep, reflecting the composer’s own experiences in Hollywood. Some moments were hypnotically rhythmic and others were reflectively lyrical. Many members of the wind and brass sections were featured, and the percussion players had a good workout with impressive results.
Robert Smith’s relatively brief “The Great Locomotive Chase” began the second half of the concert. Wiley emphasized its truly descriptive qualities, enhanced by a relentless energy, sweeping brass themes, and a predictably powerful percussion section.
To close out the evening, Gorenman joined the orchestra for Gershwin’s beloved “Rhapsody in Blue.” She approached the work as if it were Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev, thus stressing the composer’s own Russian heritage. Sometimes the full orchestra covered the sound of the pianist, but when she was heard alone in the cadenzas, Gorenman displayed a plush tone, a sense of musical line, and great finesse with the technical challenges. Wiley was particularly attentive to his soloist to make sure the orchestra stayed with her. This succeeded most of the time.
At the end of the exciting performance, the audience gave a standing ovation. Gorenman responded perhaps too generously with five encores, the last of which was an appropriate choice — a jazzy rendition of Gershwin’s own “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess.”
Timothy Gaylard is Professor of Music at Washington and Lee University