Traveling flutist joins ‘Flute Concerto’ R.I. premiere

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Monday, October 20, 2008

The Rhode Island premiere of Christopher Rouse’s “Flute Concerto” was the centerpiece of a performance Saturday evening by the Brown University Orchestra. Repeated Sunday afternoon, the Sayles Hall concert featured flutist Carol Wincenc and also included works by Strauss and Wagner.

The program opened with Richard Wagner’s “Overture to Rienzi,” an 1842 work that highlighted the brass section. A swelling and receding solo trumpet was a motif in the piece, which also included brass fanfares. While the first section was alternatively majestic and ominous, the second half, centered on a march theme, was somewhat repetitive. Based on the story of a 14th century Roman ruler, the opera that the overture comes from, “Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen,” is seldom performed because of its six-hour length.

The overture was followed by Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” an 1896 symphonic poem for orchestra and pipe organ. Inspired by one of Nietzsche’s books, the work is best known today for its use in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” On Friday night, a screening of the film in Sayles was combined with a performance of the piece.

“Zarathustra” explores the conflict between “nature” and the “inquiring spirit of man,” Paul Phillips, the orchestra’s music director, explained in the program notes. The 30-minute tone poem began with three notes by the trumpets, two bold orchestral chords and a timpani solo. The three-note rhythm appeared repeatedly in the piece, albeit in modified forms.

Showcasing the strings, Strauss included solos for the violin, viola and cello. His work progressed through dramatic melodic sequences before ending with soft bass pizzicato.

Rouse’s “Flute Concerto” comprised the second half of the program. Commissioned for Wincenc in 1993, the five-movement piece draws on Celtic traditions, in which the flute is a prominent instrument.

During the concerto’s first movement, which Wincenc described as an “aria,” a beautiful flute melody was played almost continuously over gentle strings. Suddenly, the second movement interrupted this calm. Wincenc was given a workout, playing rapid notes that sounded almost like nervous conversation accompanied by a chaotic orchestra.

The heart of the piece was the third movement, an elegy for James Bulger, an English toddler slain by two 10-year-old boys while Rouse was composing his concerto. With its lengthy bassoon solos, anguished flute and stirring strings, the movement is a statement of how music can portray tragedy.

Rouse’s final two movements mirror his first two. In the “Scherzo,” Wincenc’s playing sounded jazzy at times. The last movement was another serene aria, this time ending with quiet yet unsettled tubular bells and harp.

A faculty member at the Juilliard School, Wincenc has performed widely in America and Europe. Her appearance at Brown was sponsored by the Lawton Wehle Fitt Endowment for Artists-in-Residence, run through the Creative Arts Council.

Proceeds from the concert went to the University Music and Instrument Fund. The orchestra’s next performance will be on Dec. 5, when it will play music by John Adams, Alban Berg and Johannes Brahms.