The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's illustrious horn section took top billing during its latest Masterworks program, Four Horns and Beethoven, with the four musicians feted like conquering, brassy heroes.
Friday night's program led by Venezuelan-born, Spanish conductor José Luis Gomez featured Schumann's virtuosic Konzertstºck for Four Horns & Orchestra in F major, Op. 86. The dynamic maestro has been making major international waves since winning first place at Frankfurt's International Sir Georg Solti Conductor's Competition in September 2010. The weekend performances marked the WSO debut for the ponytailed artist, also currently principal conductor of the orchestra of Italy's Teatro Social di Como and a notable success story of his native country's revolutionary El Sistema educational-outreach program now also offered by the WSO.
Mendelssohn's overture The Fair Melusina, which depicts the medieval French legend of Melusina, provided the first taste of Gomez's imaginative conducting style. He led the players throughout the dramatic one-movement work with graceful fluidity, imbuing it with poetic sensibility and an intuitive musicality.
Then it became time for the main event. WSO principal horn Patricia Evans, joined by associate principal Kenneth MacDonald, Caroline Oberheu and Michiko Singh, took the stage with their gleaming instruments in hand. Every instrument has its own unique quirks and personality. The French horn -- despite its blueblood heritage and ability to inspire hunts of the ages, is notoriously fussy, demanding utmost skill and craft from its players. Fortunately, four such artists were on hand to present the rarely performed work -- including a WSO première -- regarded as one of the most difficult in the repertoire.
After the opening, bright, two-chord introduction, the four horns launched into its first movement, Lebhaft, with crisp attack and firm resolve. A different stage configuration might have allowed for better sound projection and sightlines, however, the ear quickly adjusted to the quartet's facing inwards towards the podium. A few stray notes invariably slipped out near the beginning, but this, too, soon settled.
Schumann's demanding work pushes its players to the limit. The tightly knit ensemble playing together as one easily handled its technical challenges. Gomez's playful direction ensured this performance never became heavy-handed.
The brass players gave full lyrical voice to the more introspective Romanze, filled with close harmonies and dynamic gradations. It's always a revelation to hear just how light and buoyant this orchestra backbencher can be. A brief trumpet fanfare then led into the final, effervescent Sehr lebhaft. It's always heartening to see the orchestra cheering their own members, attesting to the true camaraderie that exists within their ranks. In this case, they were joined by the audience's own enthusiastic response that included a standing ovation with cheers of bravo.
The concert repeats tonight at 8 p.m. at the Centennial Concert Hall. The WSO takes the show on the road to Brandon's Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium for a Sunday matinee, 3 p.m.