May (early May, specifically) is fiddlehead season in Vermont. Even as the little green furled fists rise out of the ground in resolute defiance of winter, cooks all over the region rejoice with recipes like fiddlehead soup, sautéed fiddleheads, and fiddlehead fettucini (no kidding, I’ve made it and it’s great.)
Today Randolph hosted the annually-anticipated Fiddlehead Festival: an entire day reserved to revel in the short-lived delicacy, learn more about it and other wild edibles, sample fiddlehead foods, and, yes, of course – swap recipes.
This evening Burlington’s Flynn Theatre resounded with the other kind of fiddleheads: the cellos, violas, violins and basses of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra in concert with the rest of the group.
It was the final Masterworks concert of the 2008/9 season, with music by Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky, Joan Tower and Paul Hindemith to conclude a whole adventurous season spent in “Music of Our Time”.
The evening got underway with Britten’s lively, dancing Soirées Musicales, one of two suites written on original melodies by Rossini. I love both of them, and apparently George Balanchine did too. In the early 1940s he choreographed them into the single ballet, his Divertimento. Soirées is not a deep work; neither is its companion, the Matinées Musicales. (It’s Rossini, remember.) But they’re satisfying in their own right for an evening at the symphony when they’re played well, and Soirées sure was, from the jaunty wood blocks to the plucky strings and the cheerful muted solo trumpet.
Next came Paul Hindemith’s shimmering Trauermusic, the fortunate result of an unfortunate circumstance in 1936, as Hindemith (a gifted violist) was getting ready for a guest appearance with the BBC Philharmonic. When the news was announced that King George V had died, Hindemith changed up his prepared program and rose to the occasion by writing a brand new memorial piece for viola and strings, his Trauermusic. The work was written in a single afternoon and premiered the next day on the BBC. – Talented, much?
Less an overt dirge or lament than an offering of consolation, the work is not nearly as dreary as the title suggests (Trauer = funeral, or mourning). Cyntha Phelps, visiting Vermont from her day job as principal violist of the New York Philharmonic, gave it a heartfelt and warm performance. For some reason the passages in the upper register sounded thinner, somewhat constricted, and less resonant than those moving in the lower register of the instrument. However since that impression was not shared by a colleague in another area of the auditorium I’m willing to believe it was not the soloist nor the instrument itself at the heart of issue, but rather some other unknown variable.
Joan Tower was onhand for tonight’s performance of her concerto Purple Rhapsody, again featuring Ms. Phelps, who was commanding and statuesque in a seemingly made-for-the-occasion long royal purple gown. Tower’s introduction of the piece gives you a great idea of her deadpan humor, which had also enlivened the crowd in the “Musically Speaking” pre-concert talk at 7pm: “Good evening, I wrote the piece you’re about to hear next. And I’m still alive.”
The Rhapsody is “around 17 and a half minutes long. Depending on how fast it’s played.” (Again, Tower’s dry humor.) A continuous, colorful and texturally rich work, it’s a demanding viola showcase and it was a pleasure to hear Phelps working so fluidly and expressively at both ends of the instrument’s range.
Intermission, then Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet, written 1909 and significantly revised in this 1945 edition. During the pre-concert discussion with VPR’s Walter Parker (full disclosure-Walter and I are coworkers), composer-in-residence David Ludwig was asked to talk a little about the work from a composer’s perspective and explain what’s great about it. He pointed out the rhythm, color, and originality of the work. And those very attributes turned out to be the elements the Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s exciting, technically brilliant performance highlighted.
Tonight’s seat on the left side of the Theatre gave me perfect line-of-sight to the percussion section. Special mention here to Jeremy Levine, the orchestra’s principal timpanist, for his ultimate artistry and precision. Never an easy job, but one that’s not made any easier by the intense pacing and rhythm changes in the Firebird!
The final word here goes to to Joan Tower, who continues to teach and is also currently working on a commissioned flute quartet for Carol Wincenc and the Juilliard String Quartet: “I don’t teach composition. I’m a traffic cop”.
Curious to give fiddleheads a try in your kitchen? You can buy a violin if you’re really feeling creative, or, try my Cream of Fiddlehead Soup recipe – I think you’ll like it!