May 15 was an evening of variations at the Santander Performing Arts Center, as the Reading Symphony Orchestra performed three pieces that embrace the variety and nuances of emotion.
Guest conductor Caleb Young was water on stage, conducting with great fluidity and incredible deftness. The first piece of the night was Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lasarus,’” variations of an English folk song.
In their performance of this wistful, introspective piece, the RSO’s string ensemble conjured up rolling green hills, thunderstorms and the soft coolness of wet grass.
Next up was Haydn’s Symphony 92 in G Major, popularly known as the Oxford Symphony. Haydn is Young’s favorite composer, and it showed tonight in his exuberant conducting.
His movements were forceful, and yet so delicate that it looked like a particularly forceful blow from a tuba could have sent him flying off the stage. The Oxford Symphony’s first movement, with its glistening strings and joyous horns, is exemplary of the high classical period.
However, there are rich textures throughout that show how ahead of its time this symphony was. As it goes on, the symphony is at times bombastic, easygoing and even ominous, especially in the second movement.
Haydn wrote the Oxford Symphony shortly after his most famous employer, the fabulously wealthy Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, allowed him to write music for other commissioners. Nikolaus, who liked to be called “his Serene Highness,” kept Haydn under close watch in Esterháza, his lavish palace.
Haydn eventually grew bored of being stuck alone in the palace, even calling himself a “slave” to Prince Nikolaus. The Oxford Symphony makes you feel as though you are Haydn in the palace, surrounded by both opulence and a feeling of impending doom.
The concert ended with Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, played by the RSO and special guest Hai-Ye Ni, the principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. While the piece is attributed to Tchaikovsky, much of the cello music was written by Wilhelm Karl Friedrich Fitzenhagen, the musician whom Tchaikovsky wrote the Variations for.
The term “rococo” refers to a highly decorative and extravagant style of art that was popular in the late 18th century, the kind of thing that Prince Nikolaus would have used in his interior decorating.
Despite this, Tchaikovsky’s variations are by no means artificial. The piece requires flamboyant work on the cello, but in Ni’s hands, the instrument became human. It laughed, cried, sang and screamed through the spectrum of human experience.