Published on May 4th, 2022

Symphony Tacoma’s “Classics V” on April 30 rings with profound meditation, declamation and joy.

By Rosemary Ponnekanti

From the depths of prayer to the top of the mountain and on into sheer joy – that was Symphony Tacoma’s “Classics V” concert on Saturday night April 30 at the Pantages Theater. To a nearly-full – and extremely appreciative – house, the orchestra offered three works from three extremely different composers, traversing a journey of sorrow and transformation with energy and dedication.

Vivian Fung’s “Prayer”, written in pandemic solitude, began the concert. With low, swelling string unisons moving to haunting open fifths, Fung plays with a soundscape of chant-like resonance, winds and bells blurring at the edges in fitting homage to the medieval composer who inspired her, Hildegard of Bingen.

A mournful clarinet solo then led seamlessly into Richard Danielpour’s iconic clarinet concerto “From the Mountaintop,” with soloist Anthony McGill striding onstage into the tutti introduction. McGill is a brilliant virtuoso and musical equity advocate who has become the face of this concerto since it was written for him in 2013 – and he didn’t disappoint. Leading the orchestra through the jazzy, quasi-Bernstein rhythms, whole-tone scales and edgy augmented fourths, McGill played the role of a Southern preacher with full rhetoric al range and flawless technique. Behind him the strings, brass and winds chimed in with fervent conviction, matching every mood like a church choir. The percussion glittered, with snappy vibraphone and a bass drum sounding the voice of God over the lush, neo-Romantic harmonies.

But it was in the quiet stillness, the “mountaintop” from the final speech of Dr. Martin Luther King which inspired Danielpour’s composition, that McGill truly shone. With unbelievable breath and tone control, he climbed ever-longer phrases to a sublime pianissimo pinnacle, expressing both ultimate, transformative peace and the deep suffering that had led to it.

Where does an orchestra go after the mountaintop? Down to the river, of course – in this case, the Rhine. On paper, Schumann’s Symphony no. 3, the “Rhenish”, wouldn’t seem to be a likely piece to follow a passionate expression of the Civil Rights Movement. But in musical reality, it was perfect. After a rollicking, slightly messy first movement and bombastic scherzo, the orchestra swept through the flowing waves of this river-inspired symphony. Fruity bass chords, light-hearted violins and a horn section clearly relishing every majestic note of their many solos – all shaped into meaningful structure and build under the baton of Sarah Ioannides. Like the sun after a storm, or the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, it drew together the narratives of sorrow, stress and separation, reminding us all of what it is to be human together in the beauty of the world.