A Night in Italy nearly perfect
It’s hard to fault The North State Symphony’s brilliant trio of performances this past weekend in Redding, Chico and Red Bluff.
The Saturday-night sellout performance at Redding’s gorgeous art deco Cascade Theatre, with its totally refurbished silver-blue and dusty-pink interior, gold columns, sculptured walls and elaborate seat-ends, was an opening night of the first order, complete with free champagne during the intermission and street dancing following the show: a truly gala event.
The Sunday-afternoon Chico performance was no less good technically and warmer—probably because, for all its visual brilliance, the Cascade Theatre creates a somewhat drier sound. (I expect to see this improved, once the restorers collect more money to extend the lip of the stage forward over the “pit” and into the auditorium.)
And the program! It’s hard to imagine a better season-opener: Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony (sometimes called the “perfect symphony"), Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Concerto in D Major for Guitar and Orchestra and Respighi’s Pines of Rome. The first and the last of these were once a sure bet to be among any would-be classical-music enthusiast’s first albums.
Mendelssohn’s famously upbeat symphony, which begins with a sprightly tune that takes a couple of hops and then springs up a fifth (a figure of pure joy), moves back and forth between delicately racing strings and a small woodwind/brass section that answers or comments on them, not infrequently adding the suggestion of ancient classical splendor to the sunny Italy of the work’s larger conception. The cellos and basses tip-toe around as a somewhat spooky underpinning to the second movement (answered by a gently descending motif in the woodwinds), while the third movement is suffused with warm breezes, again in the strings. The last movement, energized by a repeated, muscular “rattattattattattat,” grows in intensity and ends, like the other movements, with clean, classical efficiency.
Guitar performance has an inwardly focused concentration to it that might seem a bit off-putting, but can also force the listener to move inside the piece and appreciate all the dramatic tricks—stretched silences, modulated phrasings, varied plucking techniques, percussive bursts—that really make it work. Of all these (and more) Chico State faculty guitarist Warren Haskell is a master, and it was a treat to see him justly celebrated. The widely known Castelnuovo-Tedesco Concerto, with its sweetly melodic beginning, melancholy second movement and energetic finale, was, in Haskell’s hands, excellent.
Respighi’s very popular Pines of Rome (1924) comes from the same modernist/primitivist mix that produced Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1911), Ravel’s Bolero (1928) and George Artheil’s score for the film Ballet Màcanique (also 1924), for which its scurrying, assembly-line-like first movement could be an accompaniment.
It was, indeed, a fine concert-ender, with its gloomy second movement, clarinet-introduced and birdsong-concluded third movement and unrelenting final march, which grows louder and louder until it sweeps all before it (one dreads to imagine how this march was “read” by the Italian Fascists who first heard it).
Kudos to the North State Symphony, to Director Kyle Wylie Pickett, to the renovators of the Cascade Theatre, to the charming presenter Barbara Overhoff and to three audiences who knew a good thing and came to hear it.