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VIRGINIA CHAMBER ORCHESTRA
46th Season

David Grandis, Music Director

Reviews

VA Chamber Orchestra Salutes Lincoln the Music Lover
by Seth Arenstein, journalist, blogger, Vice President, DC Chapter, National Society of Arts and Letters, April 27, 2015

On April 12, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, the Virginia Chamber Orchestra staged an event, clothed in the guise of a traditional concert. Calling its program “Music in the Life of President Lincoln,” the slate was filled with works in a variety of genres, from opera and choral music to a symphony and spirituals, nearly all of which Lincoln had heard during his presidency.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this concert was the braiding of music and history that resulted in an entertaining and edifying experience. Short, informative notes about Lincoln’s musical interests and the pieces were read by local radio and TV personality Robert Aubrey Davis, his familiar voice in top form. Mr. Davis’s introductions, read with gusto and humor, added needed context and relevance to the brief selections that comprised the program’s first half.

Under Music Director David Grandis, strong playing by the orchestra’s flute and piccolo dominated the early selections, including the overture to Martha, an opera by Friedrich von Flotow, which had been staged for Lincoln’s second inauguration. The orchestra ably supported the pleasant phrasing of soprano Meghan McCall in selections from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, which the Lincolns heard in NY City en route to Washington for his inauguration. Incidentally, the New Yorkers gave the first-couple-to-be a rousing reception, Mr. Davis said, with several of that evening’s soloists breaking into “The Star Spangled Banner” upon spotting the Lincolns.

Yet Lincoln’s most beloved forms of music were far simpler than opera. He was moved to tears by minstrel songs and spirituals. Ironically, the president adored Dixie, which Lincoln thought was the best tune he’d ever heard. Toward the war’s end, he suggested the adoption of Dixie as a national tune, partly as a symbol of unification.

Although we lack evidence that Lincoln heard tunes such as Oh! Susanna and Camptown Races, it is assumed he encountered them since they came from the best-known songwriter of the time, Stephen Foster. The Alexandria Choral Society joined the orchestra for pleasant arrangements by John D. Miller of both tunes.

The second half of the program paid tribute to Lincoln’s love of spirituals as the Grand Contraband Jublilee Singers performed tunes from “Slave Songs of the United States,” an 1867 compilation of more than 130 “plantation songs.” While the a cappella trio’s two soloists were strong and their rendition of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” was riveting, the third singer’s backup work was unsteady at several points.

The concert’s final work was the Symphony No. 2 in D minor of George Frederick Bristow (1825-1898). (Music Director David Grandis) displayed a steady hand throughout, leading the orchestra skillfully through difficult passages, particularly for the strings.

As in the earlier portion of the program, the precision of the ensemble was the orchestra’s most obvious strength; sectional playing by the upper strings and low brass was impressive. The piece’s novelty was a pair of melodious solos for trombone, handled with gorgeous sonority by principal trombonist David Perkel.

As if all that wasn’t enough, there were several groups of school children dressed in period costumes circulating before the concert and a Lincoln look-alike, dapper in his trademark stovetop hat and black silk coat, was on hand to host the post-concert reception. Perhaps purists will dismiss a program that resurrects largely forgotten music, albeit pieces with an historic significance, yet with many concerts blending in one’s memory, the Virginia Chamber Orchestra’s attempt at innovation should be applauded.


Emil de Cou Leads Dramatic "Enoch Arden"

Using his arrangement, VA Chamber Orchestra is vivid and touching

Washington Post, Tuesday, September 28, 2010; C02

As with many conductors these days, Emil de Cou jets around from one directorship to another. Hot off his stint as associate conductor of the National Symphony -- and about to embark on his newest gig as the Pacific Northwest Ballet's music director -- he kicked off his second season Sunday as music director of the Virginia Chamber Orchestra.

De Cou is not a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. He likes multimedia and unusual twists, and the program that he chose for the VCO opener at the Northern Virginia Community College's Ernst Community Cultural Center fit the mold well. It featured his arrangement for chamber orchestra of Richard Strauss's "Enoch Arden," an hour-long work (originally scored for piano) in which the poetry is paramount and the music provides dramatic context.

Strauss might have gone the way of the soppy film score in setting Tennyson's melodramatic saga, but then that would not have been Strauss-like at all. Instead, his music offers vivid snapshots, anticipatory flashes and brief reflections on the human condition. De Cou's orchestral realization of the original piano score is as subtle as it is Straussian, and actor Gary Sloan's reading was wonderfully conceived, both touching and understated.

The orchestra, well-rehearsed and alert, managed to bring coherence to a role that proceeded in fits and starts. Its evocations of delight and serenity were as convincing as its storms and solemnly philosophical utterances, and the horns in particular had a splendid night. This is a piece that doesn't get performed often, and it deserves better. It would be good if de Cou and Sloan, who worked together beautifully here, could take it on the road.

The program's other piece was a rather routine reading of the Mendelssohn "Scottish" Symphony. Its broad outlines were evident and, in particular, the recitative-like introductions to the first and third movements were well-shaped. But the second movement, Vivace, needed a much tighter rein. And throughout, the dial-setting of its dynamics seemed stuck on mezzo-forte.

By Joan Reinthaler
Washington Post Staff Writer

Virginia Chamber Orchestra scores de Cou
Washington Post, September 21 2009

The Virginia Chamber Orchestra's new music director is a familiar face at the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap: Emil de Cou, associate director of the National Symphony Orchestra. The VCO gives de Cou a chance to innovate, and he seized it at Sunday's season opener at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, offering an unusual program of two concertos plus a chamber work.

Bach's F minor Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1056, never sounds quite right on a modern piano even the VCO's baby grand. Bach's lovely second-movement contrast of plucked strings with plucked harpsichord notes, for example, gets lost in a piano's percussive sound generation. But Brian Ganz played the solo part with gentle warmth and minimal pedal, and the VCO strings' clean sound was pleasant.

The original 1944 Copland "Appalachian Spring," for 13 instruments, had delicacy and lightness missing from the later full-orchestra version, with cleaner ebb and flow. The nine strings, three winds and piano scarcely needed a conductor at all, but de Cou made sure the simplicity of scoring reflected the simpler time to which the music points.

What really enthralled the capacity crowd was the muscular Ganz-de Cou rendition of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5. The "Emperor" is middle-period Beethoven, and it sounded wonderful with three dozen musicians instead of 90. From the start, when Ganz played as if he was determined to pound the keyboard into submission, to the puckish transition to an impressively speedy finale, there was easy rapport between pianist and conductor, resulting in a wholly winning performance and a tremendously upbeat start to de Cou's leadership of the VCO.

-- Mark J. Estren

Virginia Chamber Orchestra, Off to a Fine Start
Washington Post, Tuesday, September 11, 2007; C07

The Virginia Chamber Orchestra opened its 37th season on Sunday before a packed and friendly audience at the Ernst Cultural Center of Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale. The music was familiar and friendly, too, although not without melancholy: Conductor Luis Haza opened with an episodic but emotionally charged rendition of Sibelius's "Valse Triste."

Steven Hendrickson, principal trumpet of the National Symphony Orchestra, was featured in Hummel's splendidly superficial Trumpet Concerto, transposed from its original E Major to E-flat. Haza and the orchestra delivered bright, strongly rhythmic accompaniment as Hendrickson tossed off most of the turns and trills in the first movement with such verve that it was easy to forgive him a wrong note or two. The Andante was a pleasant interlude, featuring the trumpet's warm side. And Hendrickson made the finale a delight, enthusiastically handling its difficult leaps and ornamentation and contrasts between staccato and legato. The only oddity was taking the middle of the movement at a slower tempo than the bouncy start and brilliant finish.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 concluded the program by showcasing the energy and fine balance of the entire ensemble. There is plenty of power in this symphony, which Beethoven wrote after the "Eroica," but there is also considerable delicacy. Haza skillfully brought out the bassoon line in the first movement, the middle voices in the second and the rhythmic vitality of the third. And the orchestra excelled in the finale's striking contrast of strong chords and lighter, scurrying passages -- proffering top-notch and genuinely cooperative musicmaking.

-- Mark J. Estren

Virginia Chamber Orchestra, Fresh and Lovely
Washington Post, Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Virginia Chamber Orchestra opened its season with a dynamic and generally successful performance Sunday afternoon at the Ernst Community Cultural Center in Annandale.

Under Music Director Luis Haza, the orchestra's 21 string players achieved a lovely balance of intellect and sensibility in Bach's Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D. The deliberate tempo allowed the conductor to emphasize the work's countermelodies. While he let the music ebb and flow naturally, Haza also coaxed some urgent swells at just the right moments.

Joined by two horns and two oboes, the orchestra took on a bright energy in Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A. Its crescendos in the first movement sounded as fresh and dramatic as its lilting melodies sang out with clarity in the second movement. Lively rhythms in the third movement led to a spirited finale that rollicked with playful calls and echoes.--------

Haza and the VCO kept the concerto on course, maintaining the work's colorful nature. Indeed their perseverance generated some fine moments between orchestra and cellist----

-- Grace Jean

Accolades from the Washington Post:

"perfectly in sync, musically and metronomically"
"dynamic" "spirited"
"fine music making is always in evidence"
"the Virginia Chamber Orchestra has developed a strong collective personality and a virtuoso flair"
"the orchestra responded to conductor Luis Haza with singular unanimity"
"the Virginia Chamber Orchestra consistently rank with the best"



The Virginia Chamber Orchestra has consistently received critical acclaim for the quality of its musical performances. The following are links to web sites where the original reviews can be found. (Clicking the link will open a new browser window)

Washington Post review of September26, 2010 concert

Washington Post review of September 20, 2009 concert

Washington Post review of September 9, 2007 concert

Washington Post review of March 20, 2005 concert
(Scroll down after clicking the link)

Washington Post review of February 6, 2004 concert
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Last updated: 13 September, 2015......v.4.01