2010-02-11 / Arts

Young Pianist Dazzles Opera House Audience

By M.D. Drysdale

Sunday’s Vermont Philharmonic Orchestra concert at the Barre Opera House was a spectacular demonstration of the spirit and quality of music-making in Vermont.

The VPO reached a new pinnacle of musicianship in great symphonic works while spotlighting an entrancing and exciting new young pianist from Barre.

The VPO itself is an inspiration. Its members play for the sheer love of it—no payment involved—and that spirit shines in their faces as they play. Their ebullient conductor, Lou Kosma, though himself a top-notch New York City professional (he plays bass in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra) shares in the orchestra’s spirit and thrives on the opportunity to raise the aspiration and achievement of amateur musicians.

Also inspiring is the orchestra’s outreach to young people through its Jon Borowicz competition. The fruits of that program became the highlight of Saturday’s concert.

Sarah Durham, a 16-year-old pianist who is a junior at Spaulding High School, absolutely electrified the audience with her performance of the first movement of the Schumann Piano Concerto.

The student of legendary pianist, singer, teacher and all-around musician Richard Shadroui of Barre, she played with a maturity and musicianship that were simply astounding.

Of course, she played all the notes right—this was to be expected. What was unexpected in a player so young, however, was her complete command—command of tempos, dynamics and the shifting moods of this most romantic of all composers. Her playing of the solo cadenza near the end of the piece built an architectural edifice of sound, an intimate collaboration between herself and the 199-year-old Schumann that was spine-tingling.

As the piece neared its end, you could feel the big Opera House audience tensing itself, ready to spring to its feet in loud hurrah. The the pianist was called back repeatedly for curtain calls, leading to a Rachmaninoff encore, also outstanding.

Tchaikovsky, Too

The orchestra itself starred in the rest of the concert. It opened with one of the most gracious pieces in the literature, Smetana’s “The Moldau,” a tribute to a river of the same name, beautifully played.

Then in the second half came a really big, difficult work—the Tchaikovsky fifth symphony. This is a towering monument to orchestral excess, mixing tender, and impossibly luscious melodies with triumphal themes spitting brass and timpani, then melting into a lovely waltz and ending in a frenzy of martial spirit that caused the symphony to be played in defiance as Hitler’s army threatened Leningrad. Nothing subtle about it; but it’s a glorious piece.

The Tchaikovsky symphony also demonstrated how far the VPO has developed in the last few years. Though at first the playing lacked the compelling quality that one might wish, Maestro Kosma, full of energy himself, whipped his orchestra to a higher and higher level so that the final climax was fully satisfying and demanded another immediate standing ovation from the audience.

It was a great afternoon for music in Vermont.

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