Review: MSO’s season-ending concert a moving experience

Special to the TelegraphMay 1, 2013 

The Macon Symphony Orchestra finished its season Saturday night with a fully packed audience at the Grand Opera House. Conductor Ward Stare planned an ambitious program of Dvorak’s Eighth and Beethoven’s Ninth symphonies, a mammoth challenge of endurance for the players.

Dvorak was Eastern European (Czech) but Stare avoided the stereotypical heaviness often attributed to music of this region. In fact, his interpretation was somewhat understated. But the restraint made it more powerful.

The two main themes of the opening movement were lighter than air and darkly brooding in turn. The second movement has a theme that sounds like a children’s seesaw that I have found particularly annoying at times because it seems so trite amidst the passion of the rest of the movement.

Again, Stare’s restraint paid off as this theme sounded more natural and in proportion than it usually does. The third movement danced, but ever so lightly, allowing the listeners a little repose on either side of the romping theme of the trio. The finale brought on the full Eastern European temperament but was more subtle than simply heavy.

The main feature of this work is the highlighting of each section of the orchestra. Not only did each section have its own theme (including percussion), but each section had a significant solo or duet.

This is where the Macon Symphony really shone; its principal players showed exquisite artistry. Macon is fortunate indeed to attract such sensitive and gifted professionals.

Less than two weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings, the programming seemed eerily prescient. Beethoven penned some text to introduce the “Ode to Joy” theme that indicates we should put away our contentions and come together in human unity. And come together we did for this concert.

Beethoven called upon the human voice in solo and in chorus to join equally with the other members of the orchestra. The Macon Symphony called upon professionals, students and amateurs to fill this requirement. Many ethnicities, large age ranges, able bodied and less able bodied, all came together to produce this testament to the best humanity has to offer.

The effect was overwhelming. Stare’s restraint in Dvorak served to help pace the program so that it built to a tremendous peak in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Four professional vocal soloists were brought in; Emily Birsan, J’nai Bridges, Bernard Holcomb and Richard Ollarsarba. Their voice quality matched one another remarkably well and they collaborated on the quartet work well enough as to sound like one voice, balanced in range and dynamics. Each also had a solo that showed technical prowess and sensitivity in addition to exceptional talent and considerably gifted voices.

Ollarsarba, bass-baritone, set the bar high indeed as his rich and resonant voice declared Beethoven’s intention that all, as friends, should put away our differences and sing a new song of joy. As compelling as this was, the performance continued getting better and better until the final notes died away and the audience experienced a few seconds of breathless hush before the cheering began.

The choirs for the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth were the Choral Society of Middle Georgia joining forces with Mercer University choirs. These choirs were incredibly well prepared by Master of the Choirs David Keith.

Singing with orchestra differs greatly from singing with keyboard or small symphonic ensemble. In the latter, smooth lyrical technique is usually prized. With a full orchestra, however, this can lead to a vocal mush that contributes little of value to the performance. This was not the case last Saturday; Keith’s choirs easily managed German diction and rhythmic precision clear enough to cut through the orchestral texture.

Robert Shaw, former master of the Atlanta Symphony Choir and famous choral technician, would have been astonished to hear an amateur choir from Middle Georgia taking on this very demanding choral piece and doing it such justice.

Bravo to the students and volunteer singers. They, along with the soloists, the Macon Symphony, Stare and Keith well deserved the spontaneous standing ovation that brought this huge crowd to their feet.

In the wake of the Boston bombings, this concert with its variety of musicians was a transcendent experience that left one feeling that humankind is indeed able to create more beauty than havoc, more good will than hateful acts. This was one truly grand experience.

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