Pine Bluff Symphony closes out anniversary season in style


A Review

The Pine Bluff Symphony Orchestra concluded its silver anniversary season with “An Afternoon at the Opera” in a partnership with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Vesper Choir and the Arkansas Festival Ballet.

The musical spectacle held at UAPB’s Hathaway-Howard Fine Arts Center included passionately sung opera selections in both the German and Italian languages as well as leaping dancers in Egyptian and Spanish garb.

From the moment that Symphony conductor Charles Jones Evans lowered his baton to kick off the opening piece, The Magic Flute, until he laid it down at the conclusion of Carmen, marking the concert’s end, a feast of sound and sight was enjoyed by all.

From Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) completed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1791, paired the symphony with the impressive vocals of Vesper Choir first tenor Stephan Burse and first soprano Phyllisa Dunk, who portrayed the characters of Tamino and Pamina respectively.

Burse and Dunk not only sung with incredible power and precision but did it all singing in Mozart’s native German language.

Over the course of several acts, the story is told of Prince Tamino, who finds himself on a quest to secure entry into the Temple of Wisdom, and the woman who he falls in love with, Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night.

The solo performances of Burse and Dunk are strongly supported by other members of the Vesper Choir, who take up places at the front of the stage alongside the principals.

The symphonic accompaniment was superb throughout, with the overture to The Magic Flute characterized by a measured, slow start shifting to a flurry of insistent violins followed by the cellos and culminating in full symphonic participation.

Final Scene from Act I of Tosca (1900) by Giacoma Puccini, featured solo performances by UAPB Vesper Choir Assistant Director Heidi Cohenour-Gordon singing soprano as Florio Tosca and University of Central Arkansas associate professor Robert Holden singing baritone as Baron Scarpia.

The story of the opera singer Florio Tosca, her love for the painter Cavaradossi, and the determination of Baron Scarpia to break it up, is told through the brilliant performances of Cohenour-Gordon and Holden accompanied by the full Vesper Choir and the symphony.

The piece was vibrantly presented with the masterful vocalizations of Cohenour-Gordon strongly accented by the Vesper Choir who played the role of a crowd. The dynamic contributions of the symphony rounded out a wonderful performance.

In “Bacchanale” from Samson et Dalilah (1877) by Camille Saint-Saens, the story of the Philistine defeat of Samson and the Hebrews and the subsequent celebration is told.

The music evoked the exotic sounds of the Middle East, creating images of snake charmers and whirling dervishes in the mind’s eye.

The second half of the concert started off with Prelude and Bridal Chorus from Act III of Lohengrin (1850) by Richard Wagner.

The prelude was highlighted by the unique tone only the French horn can produce that was soon joined by the violins in an anticipatory tone.

The bridal march is indeed familiar to anyone who has ever been to a wedding.

Sung in German by the Vesper Choir and beautifully played by the symphony, the march was equal parts noble and tender.

Triumphal March and Ballet (Act II Finale) from Aida by Giuseppe Verdi, brought dancers from the Arkansas Festival Ballet to join the choir and the orchestra.

A tale of Egyptian victory over the Ethiopians, Aida as performed by the Pine Bluff Symphony Orchestra was a delight and featured the dancers decked out in Egyptian attire moving up and down the aisles of the auditorium, hands raised in a pose familiar to anyone who has ever seen human depictions in Egyptian hyrogliphyics.

The eight women and one man who made up the troupe thoroughly entertained the crowd.

From Carmen (1875) by Georges Bizet, the story of a beautiful gypsy woman who captivates a hapless army corporal, featured a number of excerpts from one of the most well known and beloved operas in existence.

The dancers from the Arkansas Festival Ballet again took to the aisles, this time in Spanish gypsy clothing.

The Vesper Choir was also out in full force with bass Devin Heggie turning in an outstanding performance.

Vesper Choir sopranos Phyllisa Dunk, Naocea Evans and Janitha Lawson as well as alto Robin Roberts and baritones David McCollough and Echol Simpson delivered additional impressive solos.

The conclusion of the last concert of the season had the audience on its feet in a sustained standing ovation that provided a fitting tribute to the professional caliber entertainment that all had witnessed.