Virginia Symphony puts the frosting on tasty Forum season

BY PETER HUMMERS | As the last of the audience trickled into the First Flight High School auditorium Sunday to the raucous tuning of the Virginia Symphony orchestra, John Tucker stood patiently at the microphone to announce the final show of the 2008-2009 Outer Banks Forum for the Lively Arts concert season.

A technician peeked out from the wings looking for the Forum president’s high sign, after which he waved his hand down and the orchestra fell silent.

After very short remarks in which he acknowledged the sole sponsor of the evening’s performance, Outer Banks Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep, Tucker announced the orchestra and the afternoon’s conductor, Matthew Kraemer.

Concertmaster Vahn Armstrong touched up the orchestra’s fine-tuning with an A from his violin and Maestro Kraemer, who conducted the orchestra here last year, came onstage. The musicians laid down the opening bars of Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture gently, the cellos and basses plucking out a pizzicato beat that anchored the music solidly. Kraemer’s conducting was meticulous and the musicians kept tightly to the groove, negotiating a tricky section near the end especially nimbly.

The Act III Intermezzo from Puccini’s opera Manon Lescault began dreamily with a cello followed by some strings, all clear as a bell. The stately entrance of the rest of the orchestra was quite moving and when the bowed basses joined in, the piece took on an air of inevitability, like the turning of the seasons. Tympani brought a spell of thunder and flutes heralded the return of the pastoral scenery. (Outside, unbeknownst to the assembled company, it rained.)

Soprano Rachel Holland came onstage to sing “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, a very well-known aria that she handled movingly, with a delicate accompaniment from the orchestra. How nice it was to hear during the evening a beautiful human voice.

A kinetic West Side Story medley enlivened by castanets came next, including a bossa-nova treatment of “Tonight,” which, if nothing else, provided a tour-de-force for the orchestra. (Neither gang in “West Side Story” was Brazilian, right?)

Jacques Offenbach provided the next selection, the overture to his 1858 operetta Orpheus in the Underworld, which featured an otherworldly bassoon, velvety strings and a shimmering harp. Concertmaster Armstrong showed beautiful notation on a pivotal solo that led to a familiar violin aria, and a delicate transition finally opened the floodgates on the risqué galop infernal, known familiarly as the “Can-Can.”

After the intermission the musicians began the dark and foreboding “Suite No. 1” from Bizet’s Carmen, an exotic evocation of Spain (a contemporary European fad) from the French composer.

A special joy was the “Evening Prayer” from Richard Wagner’s acolyte Engelbert Humperdinck, which in the hands of the Virginia Symphony was a quiet and contemplative piece of rare beauty, in the style of Wagner’s own “Siegfried Idyll.”

A popular and nonetheless very well-played medley from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera paved the way for selections from an opera by the master, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the likes of which they just weren’t writing in 1986. The thrilling music was rewarded with an honest standing ovation, which Kramer cut short by leading his musicians through John Philip Sousa’s great “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The audience didn’t need his encouragement to clap along for as long as they could; after that the applause ran rampant.