The Vermont Symphony Orchestra returned Saturday to its home stage at The Flynn in Burlington for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The outstanding and enthusiastically received concert also introduced the first of seven candidates for the VSO’s music director position.
Akiko Fujimoto, currently music director of the Mid-Texas Symphony, closed Saturday’s program with a masterful performance Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21. The VSO was in fine form too for the world premiere of a cello concerto commissioned by the VSO, and music of Ravel and Jessie Montgomery.
Beethoven’s First Symphony is decidedly Classical, not far from Haydn and Mozart, and Fujimoto not only honored that, she reveled in it. Throughout, the performance was crystal clear and rhythmically disciplined, yet there was no lack of emotional expression.
In fact, Fujimoto allowed Beethoven to create the excitement, building his crescendos to crisp climaxes in the opening Allegro. The slow movement, Andante cantabile con moto, was delightfully lyrical, then back to building excitement in the scherzo-like Menuetto — though there could have been more contrast in the trio (middle section). The rapid-paced Finale had plenty of drive – but was never driven. It was an exciting and rewarding performance.
And the 49 members of the VSO delivered. With only a couple of muddy moments, the lines were precise, clean and accurate, achieving Beethoven’s lyricism and passion with expertise.
The most interesting performance on the program, “Sampson’s Walk on Air,” a new cello concerto by Suad Bushnaq, a Jordan-born composer living in Toronto, was a mixed success. Longtime VSO cellist John Dunlop, the soloist, played his almost storytelling-style part with able virtuosity and a beautiful lyricism, while the Fujimoto and the VSO delivered Bushnaq’s lush score with beauty and warmth.
The concerto is a very worthy piece, however there are two big problems. First, the score is often too densely written around the cello, nearly obscuring many of its beautiful lines. Second, brilliant and beautiful ideas are often held onto too long to maintain interest.
The first movement, “Walk of Life,” opens with a brilliant sunrise-like awakening highlighted by trumpet moving into a lyrical drive, interrupted by a virtuosic cello cadenza. In the andante-like slow movement, “Love of Life,” the winds and brass join in the strings mellow lyricism, before moving into the final zippy “Dance of Life,” with solo cello virtuosity, and plenty of stylish flamboyance.
A successful film composer, Bushnaq’s craftsmanship is expert and inspired. A guess, though, is that she is not experienced in concerto writing. Revising “Sampson’s Walk on Air,” though, could result in a worthy addition to the repertoire. (The concerto was commissioned by Pat Sampson to celebrate the life of her late husband, Frank Sampson, a cello lover.)
Spice in the program came from Montgomery’s 2006 “Strum,” originally written for string quartet but here with string orchestra. The title pretty much gives away the style of this charming piece of Americana, which Fujimoto and the VSO strings delivered precisely and with enthusiasm.
Fujimoto opened the program, which she selected, with Maurice Ravel’s 1917 tribute to the Baroque, “Le tombeau de Couperin.” Although a bit on the mellow side – with limited dynamics and rhythmic incisiveness — she and the VSO sounded great, particularly the winds, and delivered a zippy finale.
Jaime Laredo left the VSO as music director in June after 20 years.
The selection process continues Dec. 10-12 with Peter Haskim conducting the VSO Holiday Pops, Tania Miller leading the March 26 Classical Series concert and Julian Pellicano leading the VSO Summer Festival Tour 2022. Following will be Sarah Ionnides in September 2022, James Burton in October 2022 and Andrew Crust in January 2023.