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W.Va. Symphony's tubist dazzles as soloist

By David Williams

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- You could argue that, without the bass tuba, the great film composer John Williams would not have had much of a career. Take three of his scores. The instrument playing the melody soaring over the chugging low strings in "Jaws" is the tuba. Darth Vader's first entrance in "Star Wars" comes with tuba. The climactic conversation with the mother ship at the climax of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is also the tuba (in a duet with oboe, to be fair).

So it should be no surprise that Williams wrote a tuba concerto -- and a great one at that.

The West Virginia Symphony's principal tubist, Aubrey Foard, took a turn in front of the orchestra as soloist in a dazzling performance of the piece Friday night at the Clay Center.

If you think of the tuba as just the lowest of the brass instruments, you do not know the instrument's nimbleness, flexibility and lyricism.

Foard had the full measure of the opening movement's lithe melody that burst out into fleet passages. A cadenza, accompanied by four horns in pungent harmonies, let him present the tremendous range of the instrument with rich tone.

Williams has a flair for a good melody, but his concert music, rather than his film scores, shows how well and how long he can spin one out. The slow movement featured such a melody. It started in the flute and did flute-like things: it floated sweetly but dipped and spun in little flurries of virtuosic passagework. When the tuba picked it up, it played the same thing. Foard's playing here was spectacular, as elegant as it was dexterous.

The finale was rhythmically energetic and technically refined. A trio of solo tuba, harp and timpani just before the end was a moment of compositional élan that left one bemused and amazed.

After the intermission, Foard returned for a finely honed performance of Vaughan Williams' Tuba Concerto in F minor. The slow movement remains a thing of tender beauty, and Foard played it aptly.

Conductor Grant Cooper led the orchestra in translucent, luminous accounts of both pieces. He has avoided Vaughan Williams in his tenure as music director. He shouldn't.

Respighi's "Fountain's of Rome," the first work on the program, does not have the spectacle of his "Pines of Rome" or the Stravinsky-on-steroids cheekiness of his "Roman Festivals." Cooper's interpretation, though, made it neat, colorful and surprisingly heartfelt.

The concert closed with a gripping account of Ravel's "Rapsodie espagnole."

The concert repeats Saturday night at 8 p.m. at the Clay Center.


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