By Lily Olason
The Whatcom Symphony Orchestra treated patrons to another gem this Sunday, to the tune of a world premiere, an achingly beautiful duet, and one of the most iconic pieces in the western repertoire, Romeo and Juliet. The WSO called this one “The Perfect Pair,” and perfect it was.
The concert opened with a piece Maestro Yaniv Attar commissioned for the Symphony’s fortieth anniversary season; Hitherto, by New York-based composer Sean Hickey, thrilled and delighted. Hickey, in attendance, gave a brief introduction to the massive work: “hitherto,” which means, “up until now,” reflects the culmination of something, and its arrival at today. Forty years of making music is that monumental something, huge and powerful, to be celebrated—this, of course, is just what Hickey’s piece did. Pizzicato strings and short snippets act as puzzle pieces, and they slip in between each other—a multitude of ideas spread out from the first measure and their interaction is like watching an elaborate game of Jenga, the stitching of something. They all form together and meld in powerful bursts; Hickey plays with the power and delicacy of chords, takes them from disparate, brilliant little snippets to something magnificent and forceful and solid, and the symphony reciprocates with electric energy. The little bits of thread tie up, and the weaving, especially between page and orchestra, is magical.
After Hitherto’s fantastic conclusion, duettists Moran Katz and Dimitri Murrath took the stage to deliver an absolute showstopper. Julliard-trained clarinetist Katz, and Murrath, a viola graduate of the New England Conservatory, teamed up to master Max Bruch’s Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra in E minor, op. 88.
The performance was everything you could want, and more. Masetro Attar, in his always informative pre-show debriefing, characterized the viola and the clarinet as the closest instruments we have to the human voice, their sonorous and sweet quality as similar as possible to the timber of the vocal chords. Katz and Murrath, however, made us forget they were playing anything at all. So beautiful and sweet and consistently clear was their tone in isolation, that together it was like another world—sharp, sweet, cutting all at once. Katz’s sound was outlandishly pure and full, and volume is a notoriously tough beast to master; she simply turned the dial up, and the tone was alchemically preserved even in stratospheric range. Its interaction with Murrath’s tone was just as sweet, and he matched each note with care and precision and artistry. Murrath's performance was eqiually unreal, each tip of the bow like honey, and crystal clear. Bruch’s metered and gorgeous harmonies absolutely popped, and were so crisply stacked; Katz and Murrath climbed the concerto stairs with confidence and fearless choreography.
After a hefty round of applause, the pair returned to encore with Guillaume Connesson’s Disco Toccata. It was fun and light, but also lightning fast and technically demanding, which makes me think the two never stop being fantastic.
After intermission, the symphony interpreted one of the world’s most beloved and memorable scores, Romeo and Juliet. Commemorating the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, Prokofiev’s three-suite epic was condensed into a few choice excerpts. The ones that were selected, however, captured the fiery essence of both Shakespeare’s original, and the ballet it inspired—the symphony gave a sometimes chilling, sometimes pretty, and always enduringly powerful and experienced rendition of the work, bending and molding the force of the score with ease. It dipped into lightness (“Dance”) and shouted with power (“Death of Tybalt”) but the orchestra mastered it gracefully and agilely, calling up images of swashbuckling enemies, death, and love’s enduring tether in a matter of a half an hour. As per usual, the Symphony inspires with beloved selection and comes through with beautiful delivery.
The WSO’s next gig is ‘Ham for the Holidays on December 6, featuring the Bellingham Children’s Choir. Visit the Symphony’s website for tickets or more info, or call the Mount Baker Theater’s box office at (360) 734-6080.