A flute Beethoven would have loved

It's an interesting program conductor Martin Majkut and the Rogue Valley Symphony are presenting around the valley this weekend. There's a Mozart piece written for an instrument he didn't much like, a faux Rococo piece by a noted modernist, and a Beethoven symphony the great composer himself called "little."

A quirk of Mozart's creative genius was that his love of music didn't extend to the flute. The flutist and recording artist Rhonda Larson, the Rogue Valley Symphony's guest artist for this weekend series of concerts, thinks she knows why. She says in program notes that the instrument in Mozart's day had "a small sound and poor intonation," and that if he'd heard a modern flute he'd probably have loved it and written as many concertos for it as for the piano.

Whatever the case, Larson's performance of Mozart's "Flute Concerto No. 1" Saturday night at the Craterian was light, lovely and uplifting. Those who think the flute is lacking in dynamism should hear the richness of tone she gets out of the instrument. From the moment the flute came in about a minute into the overture, it was more than capable of filling the auditorium.

Wearing a flowing gown, her blond hair held back by a sparkling band, Larson stood between Majkut and the violins and swayed slightly as she played. She won the National Flute Association's 1985 Young Artist Competition, debuted at Carnegie Hall and promptly left her classical background behind to join the Paul Winter Consort, which led to a Grammy. In addition to performing the classical flute repertoire with orchestras, she composes and leads her own band, Ventus.

In addition to the classical flute, she plays flutes from around the world, delving into the traditions of Celtic, Middle-Eastern, American Indian, and sacred and medieval music.

That side of her art came into play following the Mozart on "Be Still My Soul," a composition she says was inspired by a hymn version of Sibelius' "Finlandia." It was a real showcase, with an ethereal, almost eerie atmosphere and some flashy technical flourishes, including long passages during which Larson vocalized while playing, so that melody and harmony were being produced at the same time by a single artist.

Majkut and the orchestra began the evening with Faure's "Masques et Bergamasques," a bit of a curiosity. It is basically an homage to the elegant party life of the 18th-century French aristocracy, as portrayed in the paintings of Jean-Antoine Watteau, composed more than a century later.

Faure's orchestral works probably are underappreciated, and this one is a bit of an oddball. A light, bright Allegro molto vivo was followed by a minuet. Hints of the playful mood ran from the lively dance segments right through to the final rondeau.

For those who love Beethoven — and who doesn't? — that composer's "Symphony No. 8 in F Major" was a rewarding end to the evening. The eighth, which Beethoven insisted was better than the seventh (a view many will argue with ) is a generally cheerful symphony in four movements from the composer's middle period.

It began, with no introduction, as a sonata in very fast waltz tempo. After the subordinate theme's repetition in different keys, the coda was reached. The second movement showed the great composer's interest in the metronome, then the latest curiosity, and one that fascinated Beethoven, who had lost much of his hearing. The third, instead of a scherzo, as would earlier have been the case, was a lovely minuet.

The finale was of epic scope, like something out of the fifth or ninth symphonies. Yet it too had a bit of the light touch, as when the drums came in with the bassoon, then the woodwinds, then the violin, then the entire orchestra. There are also rhythmic jokes here and there. It is a crazy, mixed-up symphony, looking back to the classics and romantically forward all at once. But highly listenable.

The program repeats at 3 this afternoon at the Grants Pass High School Performing Arts Center.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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