Excerpt from The Columbus Dispatch By Jennifer Hambrick
To paraphrase a great line, no one is an island. Every last soul bears the mark of the other souls that, gently or with deeper imprint, have pressed upon it.
The musical works on last night’s concert of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra conveyed the privilege and the price we pay as humans who must live in relationship with each other. Columbus Symphony Music Director Rossen Milanov led the orchestra and cello soloist Joshua Roman in a second Columbus performance of Roman’s own Awakening, a romantic drama in the guise of a cello concerto, and in Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, the composer’s most ardent expression of respect for a revered master, Richard Wagner.
Over its five movements, Roman’s Awakening, which Roman performed in Columbus in 2016, portrays the life cycle of a romantic relationship – a beginning rich with possibility, a phase where things get weird, the break-up, healing and, eventually, a return to the world.
Roman, as cello soloist, was the protagonist of this drama, which began as the strings of the orchestra out of nowhere floated like a camera shot over a vast plain at the beginning of the first movement, “Momentum.”
The solo cello plucked its way into the shot against a backdrop of ravishing music in the orchestra – wistful, lyrical, lushly orchestrated, imbued with the sound and spirit of John Williams’ finest film scores and, at the same time, fresh with unexpected shapes and turns. Roman’s flawless cello lines were seemingly effortless expressions of a soul captivated by some great beauty.
Roman’s playing was at its most lyrical in the second movement, “Possibility,” where he sang the soaring lines of his beautiful self-described love song. The brief turn into increasing dissonance was masterfully controlled and orchestrated, and masterfully performed by soloist and orchestra.
That dissonance gently foreshadowed the third movement, “It’s You, Not Me,” the abrasive violin solo at the beginning of which became the sand in the flesh of the protagonist’s oyster, sending the cello into anxious diatribes. The emotional tension in the imagined relationship registered also in the heartbeat of pounding drums, against which the solo cello seems to have no way to hold its own dynamically as the relationship unravels.
At the beginning of the fourth movement, “Clinging,” the cello is truly solo, mournfully alone and ruminating. Roman’s introspective tone was as intimate as an inner monologue. Gradually, the orchestra joined the cello, first as a backdrop of a few instruments, some marking each moment like chalk marks on the wall of a prison cell, some waiting on a single sustained pitch like confidantes ready to listen.
A gradual crescendo in the orchestra begins the finale, “Awakening, Incorporated.” These are the sounds of the world – people’s voices, the ever-present beat of time, the clang of the technology and chatter that ebbs and flows among all people. These sounds return to the warm, cinematic sound world of the first movement before the cello-protagonist, having grieved its loss, returns to take part in the world.
Roman’s bluesey entrance here was full of saucy flair. Moments of rock-inspired drumming conveyed the edge of wisdom newly found. Whistles, bravos and a standing ovation greeted Roman at the concerto’s emphatic end.
An ardent devotee of Wagner, Bruckner had Wagner more than a little on the brain while composing his Seventh Symphony, which is imbued throughout with the spirit of the master of Bayreuth’s epic music dramas.
The orchestra’s celli were majestic at the symphony’s opening and in section solos throughout the movement, and the crescendo to the first dynamic peak brought a full-bodied sound.
The first movement was full of strong playing in the brass, powerful full-orchestra playing at dynamic heights and lovely exchanges in the woodwinds. The gradual crescendo through a wave of successive peaks and valleys eventually led to a massive crescendo, overflowing like the River Rhine with Wagner’s influence to the movement’s end.
Bruckner approached composing the second movement, Adagio, with a soul burdened by the sorrow that Wagner’s days were numbered. The orchestra entered into the elegiac spirit of the movement’s opening melody, one of the most painfully beautiful in all of the symphonic repertoire.
From there the movement continued in this vein, lyrical and melancholy, each line arcing to the next, and the next, as though scaling a succession of mountain ridges. Committed playing in the brass at one of the climaxes afforded a glimpse of a sublime vista.
Amplified by a quartet of Wagner tubas, the low brass fueled a riveting crescendo to the movement’s climax which, in the orchestra’s hands, was hair-raising. It was impossible not to feel the ache of grief in Bruckner’s lines as the orchestra tiptoed through the movement’s denouement.
Bruckner excelled at the symphonic scherzo (the Italian word meaning “joke”), following the model of the sometimes dark scherzo movements of Beethoven’s and Mahler’s symphonies. The A-sections of this particular scherzo call to mind Wagner’s famous Valkyries galloping over the battlefields of their fallen heroes. The orchestra’s brass gave these high points just the moxie they needed, while in the movement’s alternating sections, the orchestra’s lines interlaced like threads of gold drawn from a glowing forge.
The symphony’s finale unfolded in countless magical moments. The musicians made the most delicate chamber music of the movement’s opening. The brass triumphed again at the first dynamic highpoint. The climax ushered in the excitement of Bach’s mightiest organ works. And throughout this movement and the others, Milanov’s flawless sense of pacing gave Bruckner’s sprawling score the shape it needed.
The audience gave the evening’s second standing ovation at the symphony’s end.