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The Mississippi Symphony Orchestra at the Belhaven University Arts Center, January 9, 2010

The Annual Mozart-by-Candlelight program opened with the Overture to Cosi fan tutte, K.588, played with enthusiasm and a generally full sound. Mozart's Symphony #4 in D, K.19, followed, notable because it was composed when Mozart was 9 years old. Then we heard the Mississippi Chorus Chamber Choir in the "Regina Coeli" K.276. In my experience performances with chorus and orchestra often turn into a who-can-sing/play-louder contest, and when that happens the instruments almost always win. That didn't happen here, for two reasons: first, because Mozart (and Haydn before him) understood the dynamics, with lighter scoring especially for solo voices, and second, because Conductor Crafton Beck also understood the dynamics and restrained the instruments as needed. I remember a program a number of years ago at St. Richard Catholic Church when a single cello almost overpowered the Jackson Choral Society! It would have been nice, however, if the Mississippi Chorus could have been elevated on higher risers, which would have prevented the "grazing effect" which occurs when people speak or sing to an audience from a spot where much of the sound has to pass through an assemblage of people, whose clothes absorb much of the sound. I have always thought that choruses should be placed in front of orchestras (although that's not always practical); in the case of opera, the singers are elevated well above the orchestra pit.

Conductor Beck was generous with helpful verbal comments; among the most interesting that Concertmistress Marta Szlubowska has been playing an Amati violin for the last two months. It was made by Nicolo Amati (1596-1684), the teacher of Stradivari. Beck also suggested we might be able to hear it in the very familiar piece that followed, Serenade #13 in G major, "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik", K.525 ("A Little Night Music"). I listened carefully and thought I heard an unusually liquid sound at a few places when the texture was thin and the sound subdued, but I couldn't be sure. It would have been helpful if Szlubowska had demonstrated by playing the Amati in a short antiphonal duet, with a colleague playing her other instrument.
To see a Nicolo Amati violin, Click Here or Here

The program closed with Mozart's Symphony 40 in g minor, K.550. Beck considers this one of his all-time favorites, partly because it is so well-proportioned and so well-crafted. It was a splendid performance, with a very satisfying full sound, sometimes interspersed with softer antiphonal-like passages. I think also that the players themselves were inspired by the music; they probably could hear each other better than in other venues, as discussed in the next paragraph.

I don't remember the MSO sounding this good at Mara Hall. As many will recall, the Belhaven U Arts Center Auditorium began as a large church sanctuary. It has a hard ceiling and brick walls, and although the reverberation is modest, sound does prosper greatly. Part of that is because the stage itself is actually out in the same room as the audience (rather than in an offset smaller room with sound-absorbing drapes) and back of the stage is another brick wall. This allows the sound to "couple" to the room. I have only one minor suggestion for improving the Belhaven U hall; a center aisle would be helpful. To get to a seat in the middle of a row requires crawling over lots of people. But a center aisle would cost about 100 seats. This small matter aside, this is an excellent venue for performing groups, and we are grateful to Belhaven U for making it available to the community.

- Glenn A. Gentry
From The Continuo Online, published by the
Jackson Chapter of the American Guild of Organists,