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Heavenly performance

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Elisabeth Chardonnet
Arkansas Symphony Orchestra
Robinson Center Music Hall
Nov. 12

If you missed either of the Arkansas Symphony’s Masterworks concerts this weekend, you missed this ensemble at its best, not to mention two incredible solo performances, by ASO principal harpist Elisabeth Chardonnet and mezzo-soprano Lynnette Ellen Chambers. The concert was excellently programmed, managing to marry three very different styles into one coherent idea of Heaven and Hell.

The opening piece, Schumann’s “Manfred Overture,” was based on Lord Byron’s version of Faust. It’s a story full of mid-19th-century angst and heartache. The orchestra played “Manfred” with exacting precision, each section sounding as one instrument. Not one note was out of place, yet something was missing. The passion and romanticism of Schumann was hard to hear in the controlled performance. Nevertheless, the ASO delivered music of the highest quality.

Chardonnet shone in the two harp showpieces, Debussy’s “Danses sacrée et profane” and Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro.” Both were composed in the late 19th century to display the new chromatic harps being manufactured at that time. In the Debussy, Chardonnet’s playing evoked delicate, otherworldly sounds that created a mythical atmosphere. The orchestra provided a lush bed of sound for the harp and played perfectly in sync with the soloist. The Ravel, which began with a lovely flute duet, was a bit more traditional than the Debussy, featuring a soaring melody, as opposed to the former piece’s pentatonic motifs. Chardonnet was a master of her instrument, manipulating pedals mid-phrase and executing impressive passages with considerable musicality.

Mahler’s “Fourth Symphony” is atypical for this composer, known for his epic symphonies. Instead, he depicts here the mystery of childhood, eternally optimistic, curious, and ready to believe. In a way, it is nostalgia for what Mahler never had, his childhood being overshadowed by the death of loved ones. The orchestra had great characters in some of the more whimsical passages, the celli and basses illustrating some kind of lumbering giant, and the violins and flutes being sprightlier. David Renfro, principal French horn, performed some very nice solos with wonderful tone throughout the piece. In the second movement, Kiril Laskarov played an eerie violin solo, sounding like a devilish fiddle. The last movement, featuring Chambers, included the poem “The Heavenly Life,” a child’s description of Heaven.

Disappointingly, there was no translation in the program. With Chambers’s expression and performance, however, it was possible to understand the ideas in her song. All in all, the concert was a fitting tribute to Bill Vickery, the former executive director of the Symphony, who died earlier this month.

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