Auburn Symphony Finds Greats Off the Beaten Track

Auburn Symphony Orchestra

Saturday night’s performance by the Auburn Symphony Orchestra at the Auburn Performing Arts Center made a compelling case for why the orchestra must be maintained and supported, despite the current economy. Three of the works performed were by well-known composers but rarely heard live. None are minor or less good than the composers’ more popular works, and thankfully ASO is there to give them a hearing.

Take Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 for one, from 1948. It was not heard until 1955 as Shostakovich was, again, in the Stalinist dog house, and one must suppose that the ill-educated musical ears of the regime would not make anything of this beautiful work. According to Volkov’s book Testimony, Shostakovich wrote this concerto with the defenselessness of the Jews at a time of yet more persecution in mind.

It isn’t one of his angry works. I didn’t hear any underlying angst in it. The violin plays almost without a break through the entire half hour of the concerto, serenely above lower winds and strings in the first movement, urgent but jaunty rather than ominous in the second. The unusual passacaglia which is the third movement has more ominous portent in the orchestra while the violin floats above, and at the end is a long cadenza for the soloist which feels like more of an emotional statement than a bravura display of fireworks. That comes in, but seems subordinate to the message and the cadenza is followed straight on by the fast, syncopated fourth movement. It received a thoughtfully nuanced performance given it by the orchestra under conductor Stewart Kershaw and soloist Brittany Boulding, the orchestra’s concertmaster.

Boulding, a member of the Magical Strings family, could have played this on any stage and held her own with many famous violinists. She’s a first-class musician; her technique is equally good. She played this concerto expressively with warm, honeyed tone, impeccable pitch, easy mastery of the difficult and non-stop role which she performed without any scratches but plenty of emphasis where required. The Symphony is fortunate to have her.

The performance began with Prokofiev’s brief, impish march in B-Flat, 150 seconds to make you laugh. It was intended originally for military band, and orchestrated later, and the orchestra played it with crisp precision.

After intermission, Kershaw and the orchestra turned to English music, Elgar’s familiar Enigma Variations, and Vaughan Williams’ setting of words from a poem by Walt Whitman: Toward the Unknown Region. The Federal Way Chorale took the choral role in the Vaughan Williams, and sang it with energy, but there were moments when the sopranos and tenors were somewhat screechy on their top notes. After the Shostakovich and before the Elgar, two originals if ever there were any, it sounded straightforward and quite conventional.

Kershaw and the orchestra did a wonderful job with the Enigma. The program notes, by Kershaw, didn’t list the variations by the names or initials given by Elgar, but by phrases describing the people portrayed, such as “a lady with a slight yet appealing stammer,” or “an amateur violist.”

Although the auditorium lights were down, it was possible by squinting to keep these phrases in mind during each variation, and they added to the general enjoyment. Elgar wrote these with obvious affection and the orchestra and Kershaw gave them that same affectionate attention, the result being vivid descriptions of a group of disparate individuals. The ninth variation, Nimrod, is justly famous and as usual, its stately dignity brought tears near the surface. It’s England’s answer to the Barber Adagio for Strings, music for a solemn moment.

For an encore, the orchestra and chorus performed Sir Hubert Parry’s anthem I was glad when they said unto me, heard by millions at Britain’s royal weddings and coronations, most recently last May. To be honest, it doesn’t feel right without the sound of twenty-four little boys singing their hearts out in the treble role. Maybe the ASO could invite one of Seattle’s excellent children’s choruses to join it next time?