14 November 2011

Allentown Symphony review

Written on Sunday afternoon
I am here at the Allentown Symphony for the afternoon's concert. But first, the Young Musicians String Festival is playing a shortened version of this afternoon's (abridged versions or just movements from the three major pieces) for an audience composed mostly of their parents. It is a thrilling educational, musical, and community event. And that's not all. The 14-year-old composer of one of the pieces came out to talk about his composition: what a way to connect the young musicians, their parents, and the community together over Classical music! Now the violin soloist is talking to the young people about practicing, its challenges and rewards. She's very endearing. She's telling them about her unique violin—of which more below.

Now a college freshman, winner of the Voorhis Competition, played a gorgeous Paganini caprice—a sustained, delicate, challenging piece unlike the technical fireworks we usually expect from that composer. Young talent like that terrifies me!

The experts from the pieces are surprisingly short. I imagine the students would be a bit frustrated to just barely get going with the piece and have to stop. But they do have full concerts of their own?? They're good, but not quite “on” with their intonation and ensemble work. However, at least they're here, violins and violas in their hands, which is marvelous!!

This is one example of all the amazing initiatives that the Allentown Symphony has going on to include the community in the life of the orchestra—and to include music in the wider life of the community. Another example occurred on Friday afternoon, when the conductor Diane Wittry invited the community into Symphony Hall, onto the stage, to participate in a conversation about the weekend's concert. Diane spoke about her programming of the concert as a whole. Then she introduced Stephen Czarkowski, a conducting fellow here with the Symphony. I had a chance to talk with him later, and he is a wonderfully positive supporter of young musicians, finding and promoting new talent. He also has boundless energy of his own for conducting, playing cello, teaching, and starting new musical ensembles and programs.

So next at the bag lunch event on Friday, the “child prodigy” composer talked about his work. This young man's name is Rory Lipkis, and I interviewed his father, Larry Lipkis, for the “Where Are We Now?” series last spring. Rory is one of these multi-talented people: he sang the boy soprano solo on the recording of Tony Caruso's Final Broadcast by Paul Salerni (another interviewee, at whose CD release party I met Dana Gioia, yeanother interviewee (and a gracious endorser of my forthcoming book).

Rory Lipkis is a remarkably articulate person—not just “for a 14-year-old” (which denigrates the actual maturity of most well-educated 14-years-olds), but simply as a human being. He spoke intelligently about his education and experience, his composition process, his ideas, revisions, and working with the orchestra. How thrilling it must have been for him to hear these 100 or so professional musicians perform his composition today!

After Rory spoke, the conductor invited the weekend's violin soloist, Elizabeth Pitcairn, on to speak about the Prokofiev concerto and about her own famous violin: the notorious “Red” Stradivarius that inspired the film The Red Violin. She is a slender, willowy woman whose bony grace matches the lean woodwork of the famous instrument. I was rather shocked that she would just walk on stage in amongst a bunch of random Lehigh Valley residents (among whom I was the youngest by a good 30 years or so) with this priceless, irreplaceable instrument. It was made by Stradivarius When her grandfather gave it to her as a gift 21 years go, it cost $2 million dollars. That was 21 years ago. I can hardly imagine what it is worth now, two decades later, with that time and its notoriety added to the value. Whew. And she's just walking about, holding it in her slim hand. But I suppose that's the safest place for it.

Ms. Pitcairn was sweet in person, and a powerhouse on stage. Her playing ranges from delicate to devastating. And the whole concert was just thrilling. I am privileged to live here -- and blessed to be beginning to realize that! It might not be Lenox, Massachusetts, no siree, but it suits me.


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