Bravo, la tromba!
Symphony’s guest trumpeter transports Inspired by Italy program
The massive video screen suspended above the Laxson Auditorium stage and displaying a still frame of Bugs Bunny massaging the scalp of Elmer Fudd gave those of us who attended North State Symphony conductor Scott Seaton’s preconcert talk a pretty definitive clue that the afternoon’s Inspired by Italy program would not be a stodgy affair. Seaton, in his second year of conducting the symphony, cut a slender, youthful figure exuding physically expressive grace and witty verbal erudition. Using YouTube clips and personal anecdotes and insights, Seaton primed his audience and enhanced our appreciation for the music we were about to hear and see performed.
Adding to Seaton’s talk, guest trumpeter John Hagstrom, visiting from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, gave a brief but very informative historical outline and demonstration of the trumpet. From its origins as a strictly harmonic instrument used to dramatically accent rhythmic themes, the trumpet evolved to a fully melodic instrument capable of being featured as the lead in a composition thanks to the addition of mechanical valves that allowed the player a vast selection of notes, such as those Hagstrom would be playing in Johann N. Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto in E major later in the program.
Opening the concert, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville Overture—written when the composer was only 24—brought the near capacity Laxson Auditorium audience into immediately familiar symphonic territory. But the difference between laughing as Bugs massages Elmer’s bald head in synchronized animation to the iconic piece (as in the “Rabbit of Seville”) and seeing and hearing it played by a full orchestra in a hall designed to optimize that experience elevated our appreciation for both the humor of the cartoon and intricate melodic and rhythmic craftsmanship of the composer.
Following a round of well-earned applause, Hummel’s trumpet concerto—which debuted on New Year’s Day, 1804, when the composer was 25 years old—while less familiar, was just as enthusiastically delivered and appreciated as the previous piece. Standing at stage front near the conductor, and working without the benefit of sheet music, trumpeter Hagstrom gave a tour-de-force demonstration of the instrument’s melodic and emotional potential. Also featuring flute, as well as paired oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, timpani and of course strings ranging from deepest bass to cellos, violas and violins, the concerto’s three sections provided perfect complementary settings for Hagstrom’s virtuoso performance.
After a short intermission, and with the crowd now relaxed and acclimated to the setting, Seaton introduced the program’s only contemporary piece, “Strut,” by Michael Daugherty, a composition for “string orchestra” that debuted in 1989. In his introduction to the piece, Seaton called it “similar to a modern hoedown,” and the concert program described it as “a tribute to iconic African-American singer, actor, and social-political activist Paul Robeson,” who was a major player in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. To these ears, the piece displayed marvels of composition and performance skills, but exuded—as opposed to the organic exuberance of the 19th century pieces that preceded it—a sort of academic calculation of effect, intellectually interesting but not so emotionally engaging.
The concert’s final piece, Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A major (1833), aka the “Italian Symphony,” written when the composer toured and fell in love with Italy, brought us back to the perception of music’s seemingly magical ability to conjure evocative poetry from pure sound. The interaction of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic themes that delicately complement, or metamorphose into and out of one another, create a sensation that is only possible to music. And to see and hear live musicians conjure such magic is a treat the North State Symphony delivered with grace, humor and very personable style.