Sans, symphony weather a storm

Performance offers works by Tchaikovsky, Mozart at FLC

Soloist Katherine Audas locks eyes with guest conductor Oriol Sans during the San Juan Symphony’s rendering of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme on Sunday at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College. Enlarge photo

Kathy Myrick/Courtesy of San Juan Symphony

Soloist Katherine Audas locks eyes with guest conductor Oriol Sans during the San Juan Symphony’s rendering of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme on Sunday at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College.

On Sunday, Mozart’s short, punchy overture to the “Impressario” lasted a mere 5 minutes. Played with energy and confidence by the San Juan Symphony, the work bristled with playfulness and gusto.

The overture, written for a comic Singspiel-style opera in 1786, was as fresh as the snow falling outside of the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College. Fluffy with icy passages, the music popped in crisp phrases - just as a self-respecting presto should.

Guest conductor Oriol Sans seemed to bring out the best in our regional orchestra. He led the musicians with precision and energy. He gave the audience short, jaunty introductions, waited for the hall to settle down, then plunged directly into the music.

Sans had the good sense to puzzle out loud over the theme, “Laughter.” It suited the first work, Jacques Ibert’s “Divertissement,” but it had no relationship to Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra nor the closing work, Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 in, for Pete’s sake, F-sharp minor.

Sans conducted a very tight performance of Ibert’s complex work. Written in the late 1920s, it is a wonderful parody of this and that. Sans signaled that we might hear a few familiar tunes and we did: an off-kilter snippet of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” and a loose thread from Strauss’s “Blue Danube” waltz.

In addition, the whole piece seemed to be a musical joke full of references to things such as dances and film car chases. Sans revealed that Ibert had been an accompanist for silent films. When percussionist Jonathan Latta pulled out a police whistle and blew it over some furious snare drumming, the Keystone Cops seemed to be chasing some very nervous violins.

The tone changed when cellist Katherine Audas joined the symphony for a rather rapid reading of Tchaikovsky’s Variations. It started out simply with a clear statement of the musical theme, then the variations tumbled one over another. Sans had warned the audience that two variations in particular were mournful. They were, and Audas seemed at her lyrical best in the slower movements. At 16, she is quite accomplished. We’ve heard her here before as a concerto competition winner at Music in the Mountains. But on Sunday, Tchaikovsky’s unusual cello work seemed just a bit out of reach. She plays with confidence, but that didn’t disguise difficulties with intonation and a bit of slipperiness in the most challenging virtuosic passages.

None of that mattered to the audience which showed admiration in abundant applause.

Mozart’s winged overture launched the second half of the program followed by Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. It’s a beautiful work, radiating Classical-era clarity and elegance. There’s no so-called humor in the music, except for a little show biz that’s added sometimes by conductors with a funny bone.

Sans opted for some showbiz at the end and alerted the audience with a short story about the music’s inception. As the tale goes, beleaguered musicians complained to Haydn, the court composer, about a season that extended beyond summer’s end. He solved the problem by writing a piece where musicians could quietly make an exit one by one, and the Prince might not notice.

Sans added a nice touch by having the stage lights lowered to suggest a candlelight concert at Esterháza, the summer palace of his patron.

Sure enough, as the final movement unfurled, the San Juan musicians quietly turned off their stand lights and walked off stage. Even Sans gave up, sat down, then walked away, putting his arm around principal violist Julie Appelhanz. He left violinists Sarah Tasker and Tennille Taylor to play the final measures as a duet. Then they, too, turned their lights out, and the stage went black.

During enthusiastic applause, all the errant musicians returned for a bow. Dressed in winter coats, they had put their instruments in cases and were ready to drive home. While we all had such a good time inside the concert hall, a nasty storm had arrived.

Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at jreynolds@durangoherald.com.