Concerto Competition and Symphony Orchestra winners brighten the night

There are not many events for which people are willing to leave their warm and cozy homes on a rainy and cold night, but the Stanford Symphony Orchestra’s (SSO) fall concert on Saturday was an exception. Arriving 30 minutes early, I was greeted by a surprisingly large crowd. After watching the orchestra’s stellar performance, I understood the audience’s eagerness to attend.  

The concert started with “Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche” (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”) by German composer Richard Strauss. The piece is an example of “program music,” which expresses an image or story centered around a heroic main character. “Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche” features Till, a roguish anti-hero commonly found in German folklore. Throughout the piece, horn and clarinet led motifs narrating the story of our hero. 

The poem’s ending is rather surprising to the connoisseurs of the legend — normally always able to escape from the punishment, Till is caught and hanged. The epilogue, however, restores the hope of the vivacity of the rebellious spirit.

I was amazed by the SSO’s ability to navigate the rapid changes in tempo and dynamics. I experienced a wide range of emotions through the constant dynamic contrasts in a short period of time. Strangely, for me, the story was not as central to appreciating the humor, tension, drama and ingenuity of the opus.  

Still deeply immersed in the emotional afterglow of “Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche,” I found myself then captivated by Johannes Brahms’s Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, which featured violin soloist Richard Cheung ’24, a winner of the 2023 Concerto Competition. 

From the first movement, Cheung’s command of the violin was evident. He navigated the concerto’s demanding passages with remarkable confidence, keeping all eyes on him. His performance offered a remarkable fierce strength accompanied by SSO’s cohesive sound and director Paul Phillips’s robust movements. At some point, I wondered how Cheung could catch his breath, given the intensity and complexity of Brahms’s composition.

The orchestra also performed “Poem for Flute and Orchestra” by Charles Griffes, featuring soloist Laura Futamura ’24, another competition winner. The piece bewildered with its blending of musical styles and contrasts, an authentic reflection of Charles Griffes ingenuity. Such variety! 

Right from her arrival on stage, Futamura dazzled the audience with her stunning dress and even more brilliant performance. Her flute solo flowed above the rest of the ensemble, capable not only of considerable delicacy but also of powerful mastery. She flawlessly moved from whisper-soft pianissimos to powerful, resonant fortissimos. I particularly loved how gracefully Futamura moved her body, as if she were engaged in a delicate dance with a melody itself.

At the end, SSO offered us a little treat, performing “The Incredible Flutist — Suite from the Ballet” by Walter Piston. Prior to the piece, Phillips spoke to the audience about the extra-musical sounds in the orchestral suite. These included instruments and orchestra imitating animal noises, such as dogs barking, birds chirping and crowd babbling. 

Arranged into 12 movements played without pause, “The Incredible Flutist” tells the story of a busy marketplace with sundry characters. The SSO took the audience on an incredible trip to a Latin-American town where the magic of love is in the air. A discerning ear could pleasantly follow the movements until the polka finale magnificently ended the suite. 

SSO’s fall concert program was incredible to the point where it was impossible to select a pièce de résistance. Phillips and the orchestra delivered a magical and powerful performance, and the standing ovation proved that it truly left a lasting impression on many. 

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.