Phoenix Symphony Coffee Classics Concert on February 1, 2013 by Norman E. Hill.

To confess, my musical preferences are vocals of American popular songs, whether Sinatra, Fitzgerald, etc., and whether composed by Gershwins, Berlin, Porter, etc. There are some classical pieces I’m fond of, such as Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1, his Violin Concerto No. 2 (I think), and Saint Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 (also, I think).

So I wasn’t sure how I’d react to a Brahms’ Violin Concerto, even though a Tchaikovsky work, his Symphony No. 5, was also on the menu. I knew it would be performed in the elegant Phoenix Symphony Hall, but I still wasn’t completely sure.

Performance

Well, the late morning concert was just excellent, based on performances of all parties. The violin soloist, Miriam Fried, expressed technical skill, as expected, but tremendous passion too, that kept me focused on both her playing and her movements throughout.

As for the guest conductor, Thomas Wilkins, his skill and passion were the equal of the violin soloist. With Symphony No. 5, he led the orchestra by himself, in the same virtuoso style and manner as with Brahms.  Once, during the Brahms portion, he put down his baton and led just as impeccably with his hands.

I must say, during a classical concert, I was as interested, fixed, and alert for this one as any in my life.

As for Wilkins’ conducting technique, as trite as it may sound, I thought it was “just right”, skilled and passionate, but not excessively emotional. I had seen Bernstein conduct several times, although, to be fair, not for a complete performance. His style struck me, somehow, as overly emotional, while he seemed to be singing the (non-vocal) bars to his musicians. On the other hand, I once observed a young conductor who seemed much too mechanical, as though his limbs required WD40 to keep them moving through all the bars.

Regrettably, I never saw Toscanini conduct, in person or on film. But I was struck by one violinist’s compliment to him (slightly paraphrased), “When I was playing and looked into those burning eyes, I was Heifetz.” Well, whether burning eyes are required or not, unless I’m convinced otherwise, I’ll put Wilkins in the Toscanini camp of excellence.

Q&A

After the concert, following a lunch, Wilkins and Fried participated with a small group in a question and answer session. Throughout, they were articulate and to the point with their answers. If there is such a commodity as a “symphony world”, these two are prime ambassadors for it.

During the course of his answers, Wilkins described his youth in a poverty-stricken single mother environment. But he wanted to be an orchestral conductor since age eight. Also, no one ever burst his bubble, as adults often do, by saying, “Get real, there is no way you can ever be a conductor.”

Today, he’s music director for the Omaha Symphony Orchestra. Consistent with his public spirited side, he also serves on the city’s Chamber of Commerce. Our concert program lists his other posts with several symphony orchestras around the U.S.

Violinist Fried is world renowned for skill and the passion I noted above. She has performed with orchestras in a great number of countries. Fried made one fascinating point, also confirmed in the program, about violin instruments. Her Stradivarius of choice is nearly 200 years old. For the record, about 600 of the 1100 instruments originally made by this master craftsman still exist. Fried says that, for maintenance, “Don’t hit the violin too hard with the bow, and have the instrument carefully cleaned once a year.” That makes it sound almost easy, although we know it isn’t.

Listening to these consummate artists play and conduct and then answer questions so easily and articulately was truly a great experience.

Norman E. Hill, FSA, MAAA, Meber AICPA
Member: International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association
Member: Society of Professional Journalists