By Lawrence Budmen

Daniel Spalding is one of the most innovative conductors on today’s music scene. He formed his Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra to present unconventional programs that span the centuries from high Baroque to the most contemporary scores. On December 29, 2005 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, Spalding presented an evening of film music scored for strings, harp, and percussion (with solo piano). This event was not another reprise of music from Star Wars or Gone With the Wind. Spalding presented scores by composers known for their concert works. (Such distinguished composers as Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Walton, Vaughan Williams, and Copland wrote extensively for the cinema.) 

The London based composer Carl Davis has specialized in composing scores for art house films rather than Hollywood blockbusters. The late director Karel Reisz’s 1981 cinematic reinvention of John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman was a fascinating film within a film. (Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons played actors who are living out the Victorian romance they are filming.) Davis’s austere, romantic score is beautifully scored for strings and harp. This music is so ingeniously conceived that the listener can easily be unaware of the sheer artistic facility of the composer. Spalding and his musicians gave a silky performance of this wonderful score. Harpist Jacqueline Pollauf played her extended part with glittering beauty. Davis’s darkly romantic score belies the economy of orchestration he employs. This is haunting music that stays with the listener long after the last note has sounded. 

The Suite from The Red Violin (for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp, and Percussion) by Pulitzer Prize winning composer and educator John Corigliano is based on the score for the 1997 film by the Canadian filmmaker Francois Girard. Corigliano has recycled that music into numerous forms – an orchestral suite, a Partita for violin and piano, a Violin Concerto. The imaginative suite for violin and chamber orchestral forces represents the score at its best. (In the film Corigliano’s music was sometimes shortchanged by the episodic, sketchy dramaturgy.) This is ultra-passionate music. It’s over heated; over the top elements make it all the more appealing. Corigliano is an inspired melodist. His masterful orchestral writing is filled with coup de musical theater. The virtuosic violin writing was originally conceived for Joshua Bell. Only the most gifted violinists need apply to play this dazzler. Kurt Nikkanen was simply terrific in the daunting solo part. Nikkanen is best known for the trio he shares with pianist Navah Perlman and cellist Zuill Bailey. He is an artist to be reckoned with. Nikkanen’s rich lava of tone, deep Russian rubato, and fiercely virtuosic aplomb are pure dynamite. His all out, heated intensity of expression was stunning. Spalding matched him with an impassioned accompaniment. The three percussionists were agile and precise in Corigliano’s inventive percussive effects.

Miklos Rozsa (1907-1995) was a pillar of Hollywood for over three decades. He also was an important composer of symphonic and chamber works. Like his fellow Hollywood composer Franz Waxman, the Hungarian born Rozsa was an important musical entrepreneur who was responsible for the first American performances of works by leading composers of the day. Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound brought Rozsa the first of three Academy Awards. The composer later rearranged the principal thematic elements into his Spellbound Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Kurt Coble, a member of the Philadelphia Virtuosi’s violin section, made the arrangement for reduced forces heard at this concert. Rozsa conceived a piano-orchestral piece in the vein of Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto and accomplished it brilliantly. The Rachmaninoff inflected principal melody and keyboard pyrotechnics come wrapped in Technicolor. Rozsa was a superb orchestral colorist. His instrumental writing has the color palette of his countrymen Bartok and Kodaly. In the Spellbound score he employed the eerie sounds of the Theremin, invented by Russian physicist Leon Theremin in 1920. Hollywood composers loved to use this instrument for macabre effects in horror and science fiction films. Today a computerized instrument is usually employed. In this performance, however, arranger Coble played a real Theremin with appropriate weirdly surreal sounds. Romanian pianist Gabriela Imreh was spectacular in the solo part. Her agility, big boned virtuosity, and luminous tone were impressive. Moreover she approached Rozsa’s music with the seriousness it deserves.

Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story came to Hollywood via Broadway. Spalding’s Suite from that classic work (which broke new ground in music theater) is not derived from Bernstein’s familiar Symphonic Dances. Spalding retains the texture and ambience of Irwin Kostal’s original Broadway orchestrations. This appealing medley pays tribute to the charm and originality of Bernstein’s melodies. Imreh was the delightful pianist – sometimes doing a solo turn; at other moments providing an instrumental obbligato. A supercharged version of America had to be encored. 

Evocative lighting effects enhanced the entire concert. Daniel Spalding is clearly rethinking the concert format. His combination of interesting programming, thoughtful commentary, and flamboyant musicianship were altogether winning. A great holiday musical package! 

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