CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Organist Peter DuBois made a stylish return to Charleston, where he served as organist at Christ Church United Methodist until 1991, in Francis Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings in G Minor, Friday night at the Clay Center in a concert by the West Virginia Symphony.
Poulenc composed the concerto in 1938 and, like many of his works, it shows a lively engagement with the music of Igor Stravinsky. So the piece has some small intervals that hammer around in the timpani that remind of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" or "Symphony of Psalms." Plus, the lively penultimate allegro has a Stravinskian energy, and the closing chorale is reminiscent of the static sections that closed so many of Stravinsky's pieces, starting with the "Symphonies of Wind Instruments."
Poulenc was far too urbane and secure a composer to be as obsessive as Stravinsky about such matters, so the piece wears its borrowings with a Gallic charm.
DuBois played it with flair and drama. The powerful chordal statements were granite-like while the airy melodies were wisps of tone that seemed more felt than heard. When he needed to bring technical flash to the music, he did it with clarity.
Conductor Grant Cooper drew precise attacks from the strings, necessary with the powerful welter of the organ's sound in the big moments.
The orchestra's performance of Bela Bartok's Suite from "The Miraculous Mandarin" might easily be its best performance of the current season. Cooper's interpretation showed incisive rhythmic drive and copious textural details. The players responded with opulently colored playing, especially from the solo winds and the very busy trombone section. Clarinetists Bob Turizziani and Rachael Stutzman played with particular mastery in the lengthy solo parts for their instruments.
The piece caused a scandal at its premier performance (What early 20th-century masterwork worth its salt didn't?). Nearly 100 years later, it is hard to imagine such beautiful music being able to do that.
The concert closed with a high-spirited performance of Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3 in C Minor (Organ Symphony). DuBois rejoined the orchestra for the substantial, but not concerto-like, organ part. The spectacle of the finale was punctuated by fireworks from the nearby baseball park as I was leaving the hall. That seemed to be the only thing that Saint-Saens left out of the actual score.
Well, maybe croissants.
The concert repeats at 8 p.m. today at the Clay Center.