Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Jan. 12, 2019
by Christopher Hyde
Concertos often turn into contests of will between the soloist and the conductor. Rich Shemaria has written a Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, given its world premier at the Franco Center last night by the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra under Rohan Smith, that virtually eliminates the problem.
In the hands of Wayne du Maine, the trumpet is always first among equals. “Equals” being the operative word, as the soloist interacts with smaller groups of instruments, rather like a concerto grosso, persuading rather than dominating.
There is a section for brass chorus immediately after the opening notes, in which any one of the orchestra members could be the soloist, while du Maine saves his considerable virtuosity for the final riff of the piece. (Shemaria is noted as a jazz composer.)
There are various unifying motifs and melodic lines through the work, which is somewhat dissonant in a post-Gershwin American style. Philosophically, however, the over-arching theme is the ability of the trumpet to lead, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
The most notable example comes near the end of the second movement, when complete chaos is converted in a few measures to a melodic episode on the strings, arranged by the trumpet, which pulls everything together. In another, it changes the direction of a brutalist march.
The Midcoast gave the concerto, which I consider a seminal composition, its best possible introduction, while du Maine was spectacular in a score that is difficult without being flashy.
I usually dislike encores, but du Maine’s brilliant improvisation referenced some of the sources of Shemaria’s work, besides being a lot of fun.
The program began with an unusual reading of the Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments in E-flat Major (Op. 7), written by Richard Strauss when he was 17. Critics of Strauss take him at his word when he refers to himself as the best second-rate composer, but if juvenilia are any indication, he is right up there with Mozart and Mendelssohn.
The Serenade is as good as anything they wrote at that age, with the added difficulty of orchestration. What clinches it is the fact that from the first notes, one knows it is by Strauss, even if one has never heard it before—the hallmark of genius.
I have never been a great admirer of Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony, No. 1 in B-flat Major (Op. 38), but the Midcoast’s version changed my mind, bringing out beauties that I had not heard on recordings.
The tempo was perfect and the execution so accomplished that one could concentrate on the music, with the small but telling details Rohan Smith was able to emphasize in the midst of broad melodic sweeps.
The brass choir opening harked back to the Shemaria Concerto, as did a wonderful figure for French horns that ended on a descending phrase from the flute. (The concerto offered a lovely upward harp glissando that ended with a note from the triangle.)
The concert will be repeated today, Sunday, at 2:30 in the Orion Center in Topsham. It would be a sovereign antidote for a week’s zero weather.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.