Saturday, April 21, 2007

De Cou with the Philharmonic

Pick a highlight at Saturday’s Colorado Springs Philharmonic — the musicians and guest conductor Emil de Cou provided everything a listener could hope for.

A beautifully woven sonic tapestry? Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 2 and 4 were presented with sparkling vivacity.

The rich, colorful tones of the woodwinds? Dvorák’s Serenade in D Minor evoked the bucolic mood of a Bohemian summer night.

Or perhaps you just wanted your socks knocked off? The concert ended with “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” from Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” — and by the end, there was hardly a socked foot left at First United Methodist Church.

De Cou is the associate conductor of the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. He’s been praised for his preparation and musicianship, and both were amply on display.

My ear pricked up at the very first chord of the 4th Brandenburg Concerto: The sound had amazing buoyancy and lightness, and the rhythmic sweep was irresistible. The soloists — violinist Michael Hanson and flutists Paul Nagem and Leslie Smith — played sympathetically (though Hanson took a few minutes to get into the music), and the string orchestra was marvelously clear. Almost a fourth soloist, cellist Susan Smith gave life and bounce to the underlying rhythm.

De Cou was not doctrinaire about dynamics: Small crescendos and decrescendos made Bach's dense textures shimmer. And wonderful details abounded, such as the first movement's pear-shaped final chord.

The second Brandenburg Concerto featured David Zuercher on trumpet and Guy Dutra-Silviera on oboe along with Hanson and Nagem.

The musicians share the material, but since not all instruments are equally easy to play, the trumpet part ends up being the most difficult. It’s stratospherically high, requiring a special piccolo trumpet — an octave higher than the regular B-flat trumpet — that’s notoriously squirrelly. Which is a long way of saying that Zuercher didn’t get every note exactly right. But his tone was as golden as ever.

Nagem played with his usual brilliance and with a not-always-so-usual warmth. Dutra-Silviera's crispness perfectly complemented Nagem's suaveness, and a thoroughly-warmed-up Hanson gave a beautifully articulated performance.

Dvorák’s little-played serenade is charming. The themes are always catchy, and Dvorák finds many surprising and beautiful colors in the generally low-pitched ensemble (two clarinets, two oboes, two bassoons, three horns, cello and bass) — though he didn't always solve the sonic congestion problems inherent in the ensemble. There was some lovely playing, especially from clarinettists Ray Kireilis and Emily Singley.

The excerpt from Wagner’s darkest and most massive opera was performed in a slightly pruned-down orchestration by Engelbert Humperdinck — though it was still the largest and loudest orchestra ever to grace the church.

First United Methodist Church isn't a small space, but it's smaller than the Pikes Peak Center, and in this comparatively intimate setting, Wagner's music was simply astonishing: You were enveloped by the passionate surges of sound as Wagner kept pushing the expression farther than you believed it could possibly go — and the musicians kept answering the call.

Matthew Scheffelman played Siegfried’s horn call with such strength and confidence that the character seemed to stride before us.

De Cou isn’t as goal-oriented a conductor as philharmonic music director Lawrence Leighton Smith: It’s not always so clear where you are in the music with de Cou as with Smith. But when the sonic landscape is this enchanting, it’s not always important to know where you are.

The program will be repeated today (Sunday, April 22) at 2:30 p.m.

And: A previously announced $25,000 matching grant from stalwart philharmonic supporter Judy Fair-Spaulding has been met. In fact, it was met so quickly that Fair-Spaulding has decided to pledge another $25,000 if it can be matched by contributions from new donors by May 31, the end of the philharmonic's fiscal year.


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