Virginia Symphony Orchestra launches “Celebration of Water” with new musical director – The Virginian-Pilot
The musicians of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra expect their new musical director to lead a concert on June 4 as sparkling and refreshing as the theme.
“A Symphonic Celebration of Water,” the final program of Eric Jacobsen’s first season with the orchestra, will be presented at Chrysler Hall and co-presented by the Virginia Arts Festival.
Judging from conversations with key players, they could apply the same adjectives to Jacobsen.
“From the first time he came here, the musicians responded very well with a feeling of energy and excitement,” said concertmaster Vahn Armstrong.
The concert celebrates Hampton Roads’ connection to water with a classic masterpiece, Debussy’s “La Mer” (French for “the sea”), and other pieces, many featuring local talent.
The program is unlike any other the symphony has presented. The three movements of “La Mer” are usually performed consecutively. Here, the sections will be divided into acts and preceded by poetry readings and various musical performances.
The century-old symphony has accompanied a few theatrical performances, such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 2005. Rob Cross, who joined the VSO in 1981 and is director of the arts festival, said it was the first time a conductor orchestra pulled together works by different poets.
A typical classical concert consists of one longer piece, a few shorter works, and a featured soloist. Many programs next season will offer this.
However, this event features a dozen entries, most of them quite brief. Local connections are plentiful.
Musicians feel upbeat as they listen to Jacobsen’s offbeat programming style. Rodney Martell, bass trombonist and artistic administrator of the symphony, was enthusiastic about the program:
“It’s very unique. This is really our first foray into Eric Jacobsen territory.
It’s the most experimental program this season, said Jacobsen, who started in July but made his podium debut in December. He spoke recently about Orlando, Florida, where he has an extra job as musical director of the orchestra there.
“I really believe that our concert this weekend is a beautiful version of how music can live on stage. How music and poetry and choir and musicians, everything can happen in a full version.
“I like it, when a concert can be an event, a show, a happening.”
The concert opens with Norfolk-inspired “An American Port of Call” by famed Virginia Beach composer Adolphus Hailstork. The piece was performed last year by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s a homecoming as the symphony premiered the “Port of Call” in 1985 and recorded it in 2012.
“It’s a very heroic job to start,” Jacobsen said.
Water-themed poetry will be read by local youth as well as Virginia Poet Laureate Luisa Igloria. One of the presenters will be Hampton Roads Young Poet Laureate Ayana Ashanti Askew, who earned her title last year through her involvement with Teens With a Purpose, TWP.
Askew, a senior at Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, was named a U.S. Presidential Fellow in the Arts in May. The award honors senior graduates of exceptional talent. She is among the top 20 nationally.
Jacobsen has visited TWP in recent months. The mission of the Norfolk-based group is to empower young people to use their voice and creativity to better themselves and their communities.
“They’re so amazing what they do,” Jacobsen said. “I was so moved seeing them.”
From that visit, in addition to introducing Askew, he joined the group with “Troubled Waters”, a song composed by Richard Love, whose mother, Deirdre, founded the organization. The symphony hired Virginia Beach composer James Hosay to arrange the orchestral accompaniment.
JJJJJerome (the multiple J’s stand for his stutter) Ellis will play the piano as he performs “Gary’s Fun Day at the Swamp.” He and poet Luísa Black, both from Norfolk, collaborated on the work. Ellis, a 2015 Fulbright scholar, has co-created and performed non-traditional theater in Manhattan at venues including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“It’s one of those things that will come to life over time with the orchestra,” Jacobsen said of the Ellis-Black project. “No one heard it. It is an experimental piece.
Another new piece is “The Cross” by Portland, Oregon composer Gabriel Kahane. The piece is named after a brand of sparkling water.
The evening ends with Aaron Copland’s arrangement of the 1865 hymn “At the River”, with the VSO Chorus joining the orchestra, as it will for the original “The Cross”.
The concert is markedly different, not just because of Jacobsen’s newfound influence.
“The program is a microcosm of the new direction,” Martell said.
As the symphony sought a new musical director, it is committed to promoting diversity, equity and inclusion throughout the organization, including programs that better reflect and engage the wider community. A happy outcome would be a larger and more diverse audience.
The new approach to the symphony involves intensifying meaningful interactions with a wide range of local groups.
“Eric really embraced that,” Martell said, although Jacobsen had a proven track record in eclectic, collaborative programs before he arrived.
“It’s just the idea that the program reflects the incredible tapestry of this community,” Martell said. Local does not need to decode as amateur time.
“The amount of talent we have coming out of here is insane.”
Saturday’s concert is an exaggerated version of what’s to come.
Next season will feature some big names, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, friend and mentor of Jacobsen, who is also a cellist. A more surprising entry is renowned virtuoso mandolinist Chris Thile, best known as an American musician, who will perform the world premiere of his latest concerto in May.
Jacobsen also scheduled the Norfolk Rhythm Project All-Stars to perform with the orchestra on Louis Gottschalk’s Symphony No. 1 Festa Criolla from “A Night in the Tropics”. Born in New Orleans in 1829, Gottschalk was the first American composer to use elements of Latin American and Creole music in a classical setting.
Featured composers will range from Antonin Dvorak, one of Jacobsen’s favorites, to a viola concerto by an accomplished young composer, Jessie Montgomery. An entry on classicalpost.com says his music reflects his African-American heritage and is influenced by Zimbabwean dance, swing and techno. Montgomery wrote the piece for soloist Masumi Per Rostad, a Japanese-Norwegian violist, with whom she grew up in New York.
There may be surprises not noted in the season brochure, which can be found at virginiasymphony.org.
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In May, Jacobsen presented the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra in the round for “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi. During the concert, leaves and snow fell on the audience, along with other sensory experiences, such as the wind.
It’s the kind of playful, unexpected ingredient that Jacobsen appreciates. Of Hampton Roads he said, “I would love to do something like that here.”
Teresa Annas can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Where: Chrysler Hall, 215 St. Paul’s Blvd., Norfolk
When: 7:30 p.m. June 4
Tickets: From $25
Details: vafest.org; 757-282-2822