GAMBIER — No scientist has yet been able to document what it is, but longtime listeners to classical music can hear it: The sound of discovery.
Many well-rehearsed professionals can play the spots off the most difficult pieces of music, but what they can rarely summon is the sense of discovering music for the first time. That ecstatic rush is reserved for young musicians who plunge into the classics like children set loose in a toy store, both gloriously playful and also very serious about testing their skills. Such was the scene Saturday night in Gambier as the Knox County Symphony hosted the annual Young Musicians Competition Winners.
First up were the brothers Alex and Matthew Hettinga, who won second place in the high school division of the competition, playing a blast of Spanish warmth, the “Navarra” by Pablo de Sarasate. Sarasate was a renowned violin virtuoso of the late 19th century, and he knew how to reach into his bag of tricks and pull out some dazzling violinistic fireworks. The brothers tore into the showpiece with flair and a vigor which left a few hairs hanging from Matthew’s bow. Their playing was perfectly synchronized and sprung with tremendous rhythmical energy. Conductor Dr. Benjamin Locke kept the orchestra on its toes in order to keep up with the fleet-footed soloists, and the melody and its lively variations came off with remarkable assurance, leading to an instant standing ovation from the audience.
First-place winner was pianist Scott E. Martin, who came in second to Alex Hettinga in last year’s competition. Suffice it to say that with players of this caliber, deciding finishing places would be torture. Martin played the first movement of the Grieg “Piano Concerto in A minor,” a towering blast of Nordic wind. Martin tackled the concerto’s muscular solos with an intensity that soared out over the orchestra and left the piano shaking. But in the more intimate moments, he pulled back to a delicate whisper, letting the woodwinds (who were having a great night) project over him in the middle of the movement.
The highlight came with the long, moody solo cadenza just before the end, where Martin caught the whole range of emotions from barely audible dread to roaring torrents of notes. Again, the audience leaped to its feet at the conclusion. Smiling broadly, Locke had to shake his head “no” to prevent the shy Martin from leaving the stage before the audience was finished cheering.
Two sopranos tied for second place on the collegiate level, and both started with slow arias by Mozart. Anne Kruk started with “Ach, ich fuhl’s es ist verschwunden” from “The Magic Flute,” a dark lament about lost love. Kruk sang it with intensity, sculpting each phrase with her silvery tone. Contrastingly, her following piece, although also by Mozart, was the light and graceful first movement of the motet “Exsultate, jubilate,” which allowed her to demonstrate her agility, featuring some clear high notes.
Kendra Gibbs started with “Deh vieni, non tardar” a song of longing from “The Marriage of Figaro.” In its lower vocal placement, it suited Gibbs’ darker voice perfectly, and she sang it with a statuesque poise. Gibbs’ next selection was Franz Liszt’s orchestral arrangement of the great Franz Schubert song “Gretchen am Spinnrade.”
Although Gibbs’ voice was given room to expand warmly here, the tempo was not ideal. The song’s title translates into English as “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” and it sets a scene where a young woman is working at a spinning wheel. As she steadily spins the wheel, she sings of the man she loves, but cannot have. As the maddeningly steady rhythm builds, her despair builds to a heartbreaking peak and then falters, falling away to silence.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. In practice, the tempo was so slow the song never built to a cathartic climax, although Gibbs gave it a committed reading. In a sense, a performance that “catches on fire” does so because of the chemical reaction of music, musicians and audience. But if the music isn’t given enough zing, the energy isn’t sufficient for the reaction to take place. “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” can be explosive, but here it was a damp squib.
First-place winner on the collegiate level was G. Christopher Pitsiokos, who played the witty and intricate first movement of the “Concertino da camera” by Jacques Ibert. The rhythmically tricky music filled the stage with layers of activity, but Pitsiokos projected his alto saxophone over it all with character and humor, masterfully balancing his tone between classical reserve and jazzy rasp.
The orchestra contributed three short but energetic works to the bill, starting with a jaunty account of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance Overture.” Opening the second half was a rare but attractive “Intermezzo in G major” by the almost forgotten Russian composer Vasily Kalillikov, which seemed to combine the Russian influence of Tchaikovsky with the warmth of Brahms. The concert closed with an effectively paced version of the “Danse macabre” by Saint-Säens.
Before the concert started, orchestra members Rachel Berger, Cole Dachenhaus, Gian Garduque, Ariela Haber, Kasey Kelley, Lauren McNulty, Ayako Tokuyama and Aaron Yeoh were announced as winners of the symphony’s Letz Scholarship, which awards the students money to help pay for their musical studies.