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Impressions of Reno Chamber Orchestra’s “Primal Voices”

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The Reno Chamber Orchestra at Nightingale Concert Hall

By Owen Bryant

This winter and into the spring, the Reno Chamber Orchestra has been celebrating its 48th season, and the most recent concert was one for the ages. For one weekend at the University of Nevada’s Nightingale Concert Hall, the orchestra delivered “Primal Voices,” a program of selected works that were just about as stylistically as diverse as you can get, but all shared a common, primal passion that was truly such a moving experience.

Under conductor Kelly Kuo, the ensemble first performed Milhaud’s La creation du monde, Op. 81a. Alternating from contemplative to freewheeling, to downright spastic, it’s hard to believe this piece is now 100 years old despite all of its contemporary affectations. Saxophone, clarinet and drum-heavy, the hallmarks of the early jazz era are readily present. In fact, parts of it sounded like direct homages to Milhaud’s contemporary, Gershwin. One can almost picture parts of it more fittingly performed in a smoky jazz club instead of a concert hall.

The highlight of the program came next with Piazzolla’s Aconcagua, a delicious accordion-led work in three parts: An urgent and yearning allegro moderato, a plaintive moderato, and a brilliantly tempestuous presto finish.

The music alone nearly blew me out of my seat, but the shining star of the evening was soloist Hanzhi Wang. A decorated and internationally acclaimed accordionist, Wang studied at the China Centra Conservatory of Music in Beijing and has been recognized and mentored by the likes of James Black and Sophia Gubaidulina. The dexterity and passion with which Wang handles the music was breathtaking. She cradles and rocks with her instrument as one might with a child, completely losing herself in the music.

In a surprise encore before intermission, she played an original piece titled “My Story” that echoed the music of her homeland and whose sincerity brought a tear to my eye by the end.

After intermission came the program’s newest piece, Songs from the Deep. Written in 2022 by Juhi Bansal, it provided a touch of avant garde that counterbalanced some of the more straightforward notes of the evening. Drawing inspiration from sources from choral music to progressive metal—or in this case, the sounds of whales in the ocean—Bansal paints an ambient picture, breathing deeper and deeper into a trance.

You can almost feel the ocean waves above you as you float suspended underwater, with nothing but sound and darkness beneath. It was over almost as quickly as it began, but how much time had passed was a mystery.

Wrapping up the program, and keeping in line with Bansal’s oceanic atmosphere, was Debussy’s La Mer, also in three parts. Probably the most convention of the program’s composers, Debussy still revels in his impressionistic flourishes. Each part is aptly named and sounds it’s part.

Opening with de l’aube à midi sur la mer (from dawn to noon on the sea) one can imagine setting sail in the early morning light into an adventure. Jeux de vagues (play of the waves) sees the sea becoming a bit more restless and unpredictable. Dialogue du vent et de la mer (dialogue of wind and sea) has a storm move in, rocking the vessel through watery perils, only for it to emerge on a triumphant high note.

The Reno Chamber Orchestra is well-known for its excellence of talent and program selection, but as I stated earlier, this one stands out among the best I have seen in a while. If this is any indication of what the Spring has to offer, then check out their schedule and reserve your tickets now. Next up in April is their Baroque and Beyond program, which no doubt will be a lot of fun. Visit www.renochamberorchestra.org for more information.

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