For starters, you can’t beat Bach


Conservatory Artistic Director Arkady Fomin conducts the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major by J.S. Bach during the Conservatory Gala at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College.

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 opened two Music in the Mountains concerts last week.

On Thursday evening at St. Columba Catholic Church, conductor Guillermo Figueroa used the original orchestration. He led 10 string players and a harpsichordist in a light and energetic performance.

In a burst of almost transparent sound, the work opened the concert, appropriately called “Bach’s Gift,” and flitted by in as many minutes as musicians on stage.

The church’s apse serves as a little performance shell. It tends to slightly soften the sound. Overall, a certain sweetness prevailed Thursday night, despite the intrusion of thunder and a steady rain after intermission. The concert also featured Brandenburgs No. 2, 4 and 5. The next night in the Community Concert Hall, the Brandenburg effect turned out to be very different. The Conservatory Chamber Orchestra delivered a dramatic rendering of Number Three.

Conservatory Founder Arkady Fomin conducted his 64-chair string orchestra in an astonishing performance. This Brandenburg took on heroic dimensions. With almost six times the number of musicians as originally called for, Fomin’s orchestra responded well to his more stately pace.

Throughout, Fomin emphasized Bach’s sonic architecture with forceful downbeats and clear secondary motifs. Nothing untoward penetrated the seamless texture. Everyone played with confidence, attacking each new thematic iteration with a bit of bravado. For a student orchestra that had been rehearsing together for about a week, that’s nothing short of remarkable.

At the conclusion of the opening Allegro, the audience burst into spontaneous applause. Fomin gestured for silence so that Concertmaster Matthew Tobin could play a short cadenza transitioning into the final movement. And so the 16th annual Conservatory Gala got off to a big, bold start.

The Concert Orchestra came after and is made up of younger Conservatory musicians. Under the leadership of Conductor Gary Needham, the smaller orchestra played two works. Belnofsky’s “Heart of Fire” featured brief solos by violinist Sasha Kandybin, 13, and cellist Mark Fretheim, 14. A tongue-in-cheek zombie piece came after, led by some menacing string playing plus knocks, a powerful scream and a final “Aaarrgh”! from the conductor himself.

The remainder of the program showcased many soloists beginning with a piano four-hand transcription of the opening movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Yeon Min Park, 21, and Bin Yu, 20, sat tightly together and played what for many had to be a first hearing of the famous da-da-da-DAH theme and variations on keyboard.

Cellist Katherine Audas, 16, played the first movement of Haydn’s Concerto No. 1 with full orchestra. Audas performed with her usual assurance. She was last year’s concerto competition winner and performed with the Festival Olestra the final weekend of 2011.

The most unusual feature of an unusual concert was the addition of a cello choir, something Conservatory Dean Jesús Castro-Balbi has introduced. Nineteen cellists surrounded Yu-Zheng Chen, 23, for a two-minute musical buzz. Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” took off and landed in a low whisper of wings.

Surprisingly, Dave Brubeck’s “The Desert and the Parched Land” turned out to be a rather classic, elegiac piece. And a cello quartet rounded out the section with a muscular interpretation of Scott Joplin’s “Entertainer.”

Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony, Op.4 was the longest work on the program. From a boisterous beginning through a lyrical center movement, the symphony proceeded to a “Frolicsome Finale” in a mere 15 minutes.

To close, Fomin chose the familiar tango “Jalousie.” Composed for a 1925 movie-theater orchestra,, the “Jealousy” tango continues to appear on many a pops program. It has also served as background music for more than 100 movies. Fomin and company gave this beloved work the swing and sway of intense emotion.

At one point, Fomin casually, but in tempo, walked to the side of the stage and let his musicians play without him. It seemed to be an impromptu gesture. Then Fomin returned to center stage for some tricky retards and a big, satisfying conclusion.

The audience erupted in a shouting, whistling, standing ovation.

After a day of devastating national news, the Conservatory concert was the very best antidote to the social madness we seem to be living through again. Seeing young people play with skill, vivacity and dedication trumps a lot of ugliness in the world.

If you weren’t at the Conservatory Gala, put it on your calendar for next year and don’t miss it.

Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at

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