Review: Conductor Merrill impresses in debut with WV Symphony

David Williams
March 4, 2018
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In my 27 years as a music reviewer in Charleston, the West Virginia Symphony has only had a woman as a guest conductor when that woman was auditioning for the music director’s position. Kayoko Dan conducted in September 2016, and Babara Yahr back in 2000.

Part of that is the relatively small number of symphonic concerts the orchestra plays. I do not recall Grant Cooper or his predecessor Thomas Conlin missing any of the orchestra’s concerts. The opportunities for guest conductors have been rare.

But new music director Lawrence Loh’s conflicts in scheduling for the first season of his tenure as music director left openings for guest conductors. The orchestra turned to Michelle Merrill, a rising star who has been the associate conductor of the Detroit Symphony and is the newly appointed conductor of the Coastal Symphony of Georgia, for its concert Saturday night at the Clay Center.

She did not choose the program — the orchestra members worked this season’s programs out. This one included standard orchestral works by Mendelssohn and Schubert along with Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 2 with soloist Christine Lamprea.

Merrill impressed. Her crisp beat and economical gestures gave Mendelssohn’s Overture to “The Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” urgency with poised rhythm. The big thumps of the dancing theme had a rich sonority from horns, tuba and timpani. The halo of woodwind chords shimmered and the busy textures in the strings sounded clearly.

Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 2 in D Major is one of those pieces that every cellist plays along the way to mastering the instrument.

Lamprea played the opening movement at a leisurely tempo but not too slow. Her phrasing had an expansive quality, dwelling on notes enough to drench them in warmth but moving insistently. Merrill kept the orchestra on point, pliantly matching Lamprea’s flexible phrasing.

In the slow movement Lamprea spun the melodies gracefully while Merrill knitted the sparse accompaniment into a convincing, musical fabric. Lamprea’s tone had a dark richness at the core that even extended into the higher, normally brighter range.

The finale had rollicking rhythm and vivid details in texture. Lamprea played with a touch more fire here, although without losing her intelligent probing of the melodies and her shaping of the form. Merrill was efficient and as insightful in shaping the accompaniment.

Composer Jesse Montgomery wrote two cadenzas for Lamprea to play (composers before Beethoven rarely wrote cadenzas, leaving the performer to improvise). The one in the first movement was slyly bendy, full of multiple-stop chords and sliding chromaticisms. It seemed a bit long for the lightness of the source material. The one in the last movement was so seamless that it slipped by almost unnoticed. Lamprea played them with authority.

Merrill led a sharply detailed and intelligently inspiring performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major to close the concert.

The piece is an endurance test for players. Just about everyone plays most of the time. The strings play many fast notes with rapid bowings. The winds have little solos that pop out while the double each other in octaves or work as a choir against the strings. The brass — including Schubert’s brilliant use of the trombones — remain busy pushing melodies through the texture and adding dazzle to the climaxes.

Merrill’s made the details count. Everything was balanced laudably. The form could have been cut from crystal. The rhythm was vibrant — especially in the slow movement which spends its time winking at Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The main part of the scherzo was poised with gumption.

In all, fun to hear.

The concert was surprisingly poorly attended considering its popular repertoire. Maybe what was missing was a piece by a woman composer, say Jennifer Higdon or Libby Larsen.

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