Nov. 7, 2001 – The Puerto Rico Symphony appeared at the Reichhold Center for the Arts Saturday evening, Nov. 3, for what was appropriately billed a "triumphant return." Their third St. Thomas appearance in as many years, this year's program took the audience into the realm of esoteric art music in Brahms as well as more "popular" classics of Berlioz and Dvorak.
The orchestra has attracted a growing audience each year, and there was not a vacant seat to be found anywhere. The concert was once again jointly sponsored by the Reichhold Center and the Birch Forum.
Thanks to the introductory remarks by Brian Squires, the audience was able to glean a bit of an appreciation for what a triumph of coordination, sponsorship and sacrifice the evening represented on the part of so many. The audience greeted the news that the orchestra had waived its fee with heartfelt, appreciative applause.
Saturday night's audience was privileged to hear the orchestra at a time of exciting and historical change in leadership. They have enjoyed and responded well to inspired and gifted conductors in the past.
In the person of Guillermo Figueroa, the orchestra has gained its first native son as music director and conductor.
Maestro Figueroa is the son and nephew of former orchestra members and got a wonderful start on his career at the Conservatory of Music in Puerto Rico, learning from his relatives and also working with the great Pablo Casals.
Before making his own "triumphant return" to his homeland, Guillermo Figueroa earned an enviable reputation while a student at The Juilliard School and beyond as a budding virtuoso violinist. He has won international recognition as both a performer and conductor, showing a wide flexibility of repertoire, with a particular understanding, flair and affinity for contemporary music.
In addition to his duties with the Puerto Rico Symphony, Figueroa has just recently been appointed the music director and principal conductor of the New Mexico Symphony. He continues in his posts as concertmaster of the New York City Ballet Orchestra and as a principal violinist and one of the revolving concertmasters of the world renowned Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
The program which Maestro Figueroa chose for St. Thomas was a trio of romantic richness. Hector Berlioz can be accused of all sorts of quirks and excesses, but he will never be called boring. This year's program was complete with notes on the composers and remarked on the bizarre relationship that he shared with Harriet Smithson, whom he stalked, then married and later divorced. She is said to be the inspiration for his "Symphonie Fantastique."
Saturday's program opened with Berlioz's Overture Le Corsaire, Opus 21 ("The Pirate") an eight minute showpiece loosely based upon Byron's poem of the same name and the composer's experience with an actual (in his opinion) pirate he encountered in 1831.
He was on board the ship which took him from Marseilles to Livorno on his way to Rome, where he would take up residence as the recipient of the prestigious Prix de Rome. The story has several versions. In the most dramatic telling, his ship encountered terrifyingly foul weather in which the composer was washed overboard, only to be fished out of the sea by this grizzled, old Venetian seaman who claimed to have been the captain of the vessel which had taken Byron on his adventures in the Adriatic and Greek archipelago. No one knows how much of any of that is true. We do know the work can be said to be in a modified sonata-allegro form. The writing is such that each section of the orchestra is given an opportunity to "strut its stuff" as well as engage in the sort of devilishly playful interplay which would later reach such a high level of virtuosity in the scherzo movement of his Romeo and Juliet. It is eight minutes of fun and lyrical enchantment, and the Puerto Rico Symphony brought forth both the tenderness and fire of the piece.
The Double Concerto in A Minor, Op. 102, of Johannes Brahms is quite another story. This is a major work in the output of this German romantic giant calling for exceptional players and profound interpretational sensitivity. The work outstretches the grandeur of the same composer's magnificent violin concerto while maintaining similar contrasting moods. The first movement is a dramatic sonata with the two soloists introducing and then taking the principal themes through a kaleidoscope of mood swings. The second movement is a richly lyrical and deeply moving andante. The finale is an astounding combination of tightly written structure, virtuosity and sheer joy. It takes extremely fine players to bring this piece off well and a great deal of nerve for any orchestra with Casals in its past to attempt it. This was one of "his" pieces. Naxos has remastered and reissued a recording made by Jacques Thibaud, Pablo Casals and the Orchestra Pau Casals under the direction of Alfred Cortot in 1937. Hearing the recording clears up any question of why this performance was held to be definitive for more than 60 years. Dara Burkholder and Jesus Morales evoked an other-worldly beauty in their thoughtful, sensitive and spiritually transporting interpretation of the work, aligning themselves and the Puerto Rico Symphony securely in the Casals tradition of great performance. This was the highlight of the evening.
The second half was given over to the New World (Symphony No. 9) of Antonin Dvorak. This follower of Smetana became the greatest leader of Czech national music.
The late 19th century was a time of ardent rediscovery of national culture and the collecting of folk music throughout the world. Called to New York in 1892, Dvorak spent the next three years as head of the National Conservatory of Music. This institution had been founded by Jeannette Thurber with help from Andrew Carnegie and others. Unfortunately, the school would be forced to close in 1928. As its director, Dvorak urged his students to find and write "American" music with a nationalistic flavor of its own. This challenge would not be successfully taken up until more than a generation later when Gershwin and then Copeland would forge a truly American sound.
Dvorak was interested in all sorts of folk music and was fascinated by the American Indian melodies he encountered and Negro spirituals, which he learned about from his student Henry T. Burleigh, a black baritone and composer.
The "Symphony No. 9, from the New World" was composed during his first year in America. In an interview with a reporter from the New York Herald, the composer declared, "In the Negro songs, I have found a secure basis for a new national musical school. America can have her own music, a fine music growing up from her own soil and having its own character — the natural voice of a free and great nation."
The work is probably one of the most beloved of symphonies. Its popular character grows from Dvorak's clever use of syncopations, Indian pentatonic scales, and warm, accessible melodic themes, evocative of folk song and spirituals. Figueroa led his new orchestra through a rather pristine performance of the work, which went out of its way to avoid sentimentality. This approach to romantic repertoire is very much in vogue among the current intellectual conductors, such as John Elliott Gardner. It has great validity and integrity, although it denies the audience and orchestra the permission to "linger and wallow" in beautiful moments in favor of balance and overall structure.
Hopefully, as Figueroa and the Puerto Rico Symphony solidify their bonds, they will become more daring in their reading of such repertoire. It would be such a treat to hear them approach the Franck symphony, for instance.
In his long and awesome career, Pablo Casals founded two orchestras. The first was the Orchestra Pau Casals of Barcelona, which was a personal crusade of the great maestro to develop a national and regional pride in his Basque provin
ce between the two World Wars. Many years later, he wrote about that experience in his autobiography, "Joys and Sorrows." He told of the spirit of collaboration and fraternity which he worked to instill among his players and of their shared commitment to serve the music together — rather than bow to the will and ego of the conductor. Casals was a great humanitarian — the only musician ever to be invited to address the United Nations, for whom he performed his Catalan Oratorio El Pesebre. He preached and wrote of the power of art, especially music, to teach deep truths about the human condition: "We are capable of building beauty and harmony just as surely as we are capable of sowing discord and enmity."
Ironically, word came to Casals that Barcelona was being evacuated because of the Spanish Civil War as he and his orchestra were rehearsing for a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. As he relates the story, he was handed a note. He announced to his players that they must disband, and that it was uncertain when it would be safe for them to meet again. He wished them well. One of the players stood up and said, "Maestro, before we leave, let us finish the symphony." Casals reports that the rest of that rehearsal was music making on a spiritual level.
Eighty-six people, comprising the second orchestra to be founded by Casals, created beautiful sounds, reinforcing their founder's message Saturday night at our very own Reichhold Center for the Arts.
Has anyone really been able to relax since Sept. 11? Several people remarked that, in light of the tension in the air since that day, they "needed" that night.
To the players, their conductor, David Edgecombe and the Reichhold staff, the Birch Forum and especially Ricardo Charaf: "Thanks." We needed that!

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