RSO season opener receives standing ovations

The Ridgefield Symphony’s season opener last Saturday evening at the Anne S. Richardson Auditorium, with Yuga Cohler on the podium as the third of four guest conductors competing for the position of the orchestra’s next music director, was so enjoyable and generally excellent that one wonders how it could be outdone. Maestro Cohler’s program included Dawn, a recent composition by Paul Frucht, who was on hand and spoke about the piece, Sir Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto, with cellist Julian Schwarz as soloist, and Rimski-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

Paul Frucht explained that Dawn was inspired by and is dedicated to Dawn Hochsprung, the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, where she gave her life trying to protect her students from the armed gunman who attacked them. Frucht had personally known and worked with her when he was a student at Rogers Park Middle School, where she was assistant principal. The music’s excellent orchestration is alternately effectively somber and impassioned, and Maestro Cohler’s direction beautifully defined its shifting nuances. Frucht is obviously a composer with a career to follow.

If a program featuring three such excellent works could have a highlight, it would have to be the Elgar Cello Concerto this time. As with the Frucht piece, the music in also introspective in color, in Elgar’s case reflecting the composer’s downcast mood at the end of the First World War. Along with and in spite of that, however, it is lyrically beautiful and replete with both subtle shifts in nuance and ample opportunity for a soloist’s technical display. Both individually and collaboratively, cellist Schwarz and Maestro and his orchestra provided a near-flawless performance. Playing a remarkably resonant cello and equipped with both a relaxed virtuosity and a telling musical sensitivity, Schwarz left nothing unsaid about the music’s texture and expressive potential. I’ve heard the Elgar concerto many times, but never better played.

After the intermission, Cohler introduced Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade with the comment that after the program’s somewhat somber first half, now was the time for a bit of fun. Scheherazade is certainly that. Rimsky was one of the greatest orchestrators of all time, and Scheherazade, with its musical characterization of several of the beautiful Scheherazade’s stories, is a kaleidoscope of melodies and rhythms and varied instrumental solos. In spite of limited rehearsal time, Cohler and the orchestra managed it nicely. Individual woodwind and brass solos were well done, with particular kudos due for principal cellist Nicholas Hardie for lovely thematic and ancillary solos and great praise indeed for concertmaster Jorge Avila, who provided beautifully played unifying “voice of Scheherazade” solos throughout the work.

It was a concert well worthy of the several standing ovations it received.