The University Symphony Orchestra at Florida State University continues its Spring 2018 season with another concert featuring a well-known “blockbuster” composition from the Romantic era and another opportunity to celebrate the musical talents and contributions of Florida State University music faculty.
Earlier this month, the USO, under the direction of Dr. Alexander Jimenez, presented an exceptional performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, with FSU faculty pianist Ian Hobson as soloist. The concert also included a stirring performance of Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Op. 40, one of the most celebrated, massive, and orchestrally demanding tone poems by the late German Romantic composer, Richard Strauss. This week’s concert, scheduled for Saturday, February 24, will see the USO tackle one of the most famous early Romantic symphonies: Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 (1830). Generations of concert goers and music students have come to know and love this masterpiece, with its rich orchestrations, musical special effects, and pioneering use of a recurring musical theme that appears across all five movements of the symphony, binds the entire work together, and helps to tell Berlioz’s story of unrequited love, jealousy, and despair. The symphony’s ultimate mocking dance of death in its fifth movement, "Songe d'une nuit du sabbat," is among the most famous movements in the orchestral literature. Like Ein Heldenleben, Symphonie Fantastique is an exploration of the artistic temperament – at least as that was understood by the early musical Romantics.
Saturday’s USO concert will also feature the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1997) by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939), Francis Eppes Distinguished Professor at Florida State University and one of America's leading composers. She studied at the Florida State University and the Juilliard School, where her major teachers were Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter. She also studied violin with Richard Burgin and Ivan Galamian and was a member of the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. Her works are commissioned and played regularly by the leading orchestras and ensembles throughout the world. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich has written that the Violin Concerto is “a very personal and deeply felt contemporary response to the instrument I have been closest to throughout my musical life. Perhaps that's why I found the experience of writing my concerto at once a challenge and a labor of love.” Those who’ve come to know and appreciate Zwilich’s musical lyricism, vibrant rhythms, assured orchestrations, and ability to convincingly draw together a rich collection of influences and musical ideas will not be disappointed by her Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.
Zwilich’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra will be in exceptional hands on Saturday night. Dr. Alexander Jimenez has been a close collaborator with Zwilich and a regular interpreter of her works. In the last several years, he’s conducted performances of her Clarinet Concerto in Israel and her Oboe Concerto in Tallahassee, and he led the way in securing a commissioned work by Zwilich for the Tallahassee Youth Orchestra in 2017. Under Jimenez’s baton, the University Symphony Orchestra has also recorded her Millennium Fantasy and Peanuts Gallery.
Furthermore, Dr. Shannon Thomas, who is also a champion of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s music, will join the USO as soloist on the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Thomas, an Assistant Professor of Violin at FSU, has garnered a reputation for exciting, thoughtful performances as a chamber musician, soloist, and in recital throughout North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Recent performing engagements have taken her to the Kennedy Center, Spoleto Festival USA, Carnegie Hall Stern Auditorium, Bolivia’s Centro Sinfonico in La Paz, and the Banff Centre where she has collaborated with distinguished artists such as the St. Lawrence String Quartet, David Halen, Richard King, Wendy Chen, and Anita Pontremoli. As a chamber musician, Shannon Thomas has performed at the Innsbrook Summer Music Festival, Sarasota Music Festival, Kneisel Hall, ENCORE School for Strings, Aspen Music Festival, Stony Brook University, the International Clarinet Association National Conference, International Trumpet Guild, and with the Bryant Park Chamber Players in New York City. In addition to concerts with the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra where she serves as principal second violin, Thomas performs regularly with the IRIS Orchestra and has recorded for the Blue Griffin and Albany Records. Her CD celebrating the music of women composers Lera Auerbach, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and Jennifer Higdon will be released later this year. She earned her Doctorate of Musical Arts from the Cleveland Institute of Music and is also a graduate of Vanderbilt University and Yale University.
Members of the Tallahassee community are cordially invited to Saturday’s concert, which will be held in Ruby Diamond Concert Hall and will begin at 7:30 PM. The concert is free, and tickets are not required. (All photographs of the University Symphony Orchestra in this article were taken by members of University Communications and were taken on February 3, 2018.)