(Conductor Thomas Wilkins)

By Montague Gammon III

Take your seat, for a concert of joyousness. 

The Virginia Symphony’s Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto concert in late April showers the Ferguson Center, Chrysler Hall and the Sandler Center with “Pure joy,” to quote an email from VSO Principal Guest Conductor Thomas Wilkins.

Before soloist Geneva Lewis and the ca. 1766 G.B. Guadagnini violin she plays take the stage for Tchaikovsky’s only violin concerto, Wilkins leads the orchestra in three other works: Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta (1934), George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad–Rhapsody for Orchestra (1912), and Alexander Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from his unfinished opera Prince Igor (1869, 1879 and later).

Research chemist, chemistry teacher and avocational composer Borodin’s piece is probably the best known of the bunch, though not in its original form. For the 1953, Tony winning, Broadway musical Kismet, Robert Wright and George Forrest “adapted” much of their music from Borodin. Within a year of Kismet’s opening, Tony Bennet and a host of others had made the show’s “Strangers in Paradise” a hit on every sonically capable medium of the mid-50’s. It’s still showing up in rap and anime works and movie scores today.

In Prince Igor, Borodin’s tune, which would became that ultimate anthem of the smitten, is called the “Gliding Dance of the Maidens,” and makes up merely 3 minutes of the complete Polovtsian Dances. The rest of the Dances’ 10 or so minutes, all of which Rimsky-Korsakov and Anatoly Lyadov helped Borodin orchestrate in 1879 (apparently in a whirlwind effort worthy of some undergrad, exam-cramming allnighters) is an athletically propulsive display of weapon brandishing ferocity. The dancers are slaves compelled to entertain the (historically 12th Century) Polovtsian khan Konchak and his court, plus his guest and captured foe, the titular potentate Igor.

Another terpsichorean work, Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, opens the concert. When the one or two year old Kodály (sources differ on his age) and his parents moved to Galánta, staying for five (or maybe seven?) years, the town was in their native Hungary, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. (When Kodály died in 1967, in Budapest, Hungary, Galánta was part of Czechoslovakia; now it’s in the Slovak Republic, a.k.a. Slovakia.)

“Galánta” begins with a call to attention from strings, brass and flute that makes it an ideal curtain raiser. Interspersed with gentle passages are spritely, high stepping bits that make it easy to imagine spotlighted couples and solo dancers awash in ensembles that dance on and off the floor..

George Butterworth’s Rhapsody follows the Kodály. Wilkins wrote, “Galanta and Shropshire are indeed not very well known….BUT…..when they are performed, it’s been my experience that audience members are really glad they got to hear them.” 

The London-born Butterworth first set as a song cycle a polydactylic handful of poems from A.E. Housman’s 1896 book of 63 short verses, A Shropshire Lad; the strictly instrumental Orchestral Rhapsody was composed later. 

Butterworth’s cycle skipped the scholarly poet’s gleefully boozy stuff (“I have carried half way home, or near / Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer,”) and the gorgeously lyrical (“On Wenlock edge the wood’s in trouble/ His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves”) to concentrate (with frightening but accidental foresight two years before World War I began to ravage Europe and devastate the ranks of young British creatives) on Housman’s hymns to past youthfulness and those the poet claimed were a fortunate few: “They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man, / The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.”

The stand-alone Rhapsody seems to present a contrast between a supremely pastoral peacefulness and some unidentifiable force that threatens it. Peace wins out in the end. 

Butterworth entered the service of his country as a private in 1914. Repeatedly cited for heroism on the trenched battlefields of France, he was soon promoted to Subaltern, the equivalent of 2nd Lieutenant. As of 4:45 a.m., August 5, 1916, the Military Cross medal he had earned was not yet pinned on. Mid-battle, Butterworth, who’d exhorted his men to keep low, fell to a sniper’s bullet at 31 years of age. Hastily buried in the side of the muddy trench where he died, this Oxford graduate, composer, teacher, singer, sometime professional dancer, friend of and influence on the great composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, dead before he could reach his greatest glory, would never write more. His gravesite’s unknown.

The joy here lies not in the work’s ancillary story, but in what the music brings to listeners’ ears. To quote Wilkins, “There is no sadness in this music, just beauty and a tremendous sense of contentment…respect for nature, serenity beyond measure and sheer beauty.”

Answering the question of what makes the concert closing Violin Concerto special, Wilkins wrote, “It’s Tchaikovsky! It dazzles and sizzles!!!” and then added “The artistry of the writing and subsequently the execution of performance are just plain spectacular!”

The execution of its violin solos is in the hands of multiple competition winner Geneva Lewis, whose fast rising international career saw her last season buzzing between Aukland and Arkansas, Augusta and Austin, with an earlier performance in Amsterdam. Hampton Roads is sandwiched between NYC and Myrtle Beach, London and Baltimore. Earning plaudits such as “brilliant cadences, silky tones and careful phrasing…inspired” (Auckland), and “great talent” (Arkansas), and more, Lewis is just the sort of musician of whom Hampton Roads audiences will soon proudly say, “We heard her when!”

The Tchaikovsky is one of those masterpieces whose every note sounds in just the right way, in just the right place, every time, as if there were no other way its elements could possibly be combined.

Wilkins summed up: ”There is nothing on this program that does not enliven our senses. Each piece, either through its energy or through its serenity, in its own way and with its own voice, glimmers.”



Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

7:30 p.m., Thurs., April 25, Ferguson Center for the Arts, Newport News

7:30 p.m., Fri., April 26, Chrysler Hall, Norfolk

7:30 p.m., Sat., April 27, Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, Virginia Beach

Zoltán Kodály: Dances of Galanta

George Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad, Rhapsody for Orchestra

Alexander Borodin: Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto

Virginia Symphony Orchestra

Thomas Wilkins, conductor

Geneva Lewis, violin