Maestra Amy Chang, visiting Guest Conductor of the Conway Symphony Orchestra, who has stepped in for Israel Getzov, Music Director, during his sabbatical absence for the UCA Spring 2012 semester, left us with her stunning parting gift, just before departing the U.S. for her return to her native Taiwan.

This gift must be close to an absolute pinnacle of her work, in leading the orchestra to its rousing conclusion to, and possibly topping, if that is possible, the orchestra’s record spectacular 2011-2012 performance season.

The program presented at Reynolds Performance Hall on April 28 brought out a full plate of classical gems, each representing styles to be expected of the late 19th and early 20th century European repertoire, and eagerly treasured by the audience who responded not only by jumping to their feet almost before the music ended, but with sustained verbal shouts of approval, requiring Chang to return to the stage for extra accolades and to bring the orchestra, including key soloists, also into the extra acclamation.

The program began with the Academic Festival Overture, Op 80, by Johannes Brahms, written as a "thank you" gesture to his hosts for being awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Breslau.

The music, being a sort of light-hearted poking of fun at the legendary pomposity of the "academics" of the time, nevertheless managed to include the famous warmth and musically expansive character of Brahms’ music, amongst the frequent quotations of popular, even to the point of boisterous, student folk-like songs, such as the famous "Gaudeamus igitur", no doubt reminding some listeners of the mid-20th century operetta, The Student Prince, made into a film some years ago.

Though exhibiting some momentary spurts of "fuzzy" ensemble playing by the winds at the beginning of the piece, all sections of the orchestra quickly covered themselves with glory, to display not only the brassy bombast of the student themes but also the voluptuous flowering typical of the best of Brahms’ music.

Though undoubtedly mostly unknown to the general public, the music of Benjamin Britten and especially a very early work the Simple Symphony, Op. 4, which the composer rescored from earlier music for strings only, was a welcome contrast to the exuberance of Brahms’ Overture. While some writers have described this Britten piece as "facile" or an example of youthful simplicity, it seemed to these ears to be anything but simple to play, demanding a sort of Mozartian transparency that must have tested the skills of clarity and precision of the orchestra. The CSO to its credit gave no clue of this in their masterful rendition. Though all of the four movements were thoroughly enjoyed for their contrasting moods, the so-called "youthful playfulness" of the composer was well caught by the musicians in three of the movements. The second movement, ‘Playful Pizzicato’ not only employed the flawless precision of the pizzicato strings but also a warmth of color not often heard in pizzicato playing.

Perhaps a slightly "tongue-in-cheek’ gesture by Britten in naming the third movement ‘Sentimental’ Sarabande, nevertheless caught us by surprise with its dark, lush and almost mournful mood. This especially belied what one often thinks of as the "restrained emotions" of British music. The scurrying mood of the ‘Frolicsome Finale’ reassuringly brought this wonderful music to its most appropriate conclusion, setting us up for the tour de force that awaited us after intermission.

Anticipating with relish hearing the perennial favorite of symphony goers, we were quite unprepared to learn for the first time or to recall the way in which Antonin Dvorak captured the awesome and majestic grandeur of the American continent, which was still being discovered by so many European and other outside visitors in the late 19th century, when he visited the monumental new country, especially the East Coast and the new state of Iowa where some of his fellow Czech countrymen then lived.

Along with using melodies Dvorak thought evoked the Native American and African American music of the American continent, he managed to convey the nostalgia for the hazy prairies, along with perhaps his own homesick feelings for his native country.

Chang brought every ounce of color, power, and high musical skill out of the orchestra which as an ensemble and with exemplary soloists, elicited purrs of satisfaction for those hungry for — yes, serious – musical meat though filled also with plenty of light-hearted seriousness as well. Perhaps her expressive body language contributed to the overall effect, without in the least distracting from it. Special mention must be made of soloists: Andy Oeste, oboist/English hornist; both flutists Kayla Copeland and Simona Donova (Copeland also doubled delightfully on piccolo); Omar Alonzo, clarinet; Holly Williamson, bassoon; Brent Shires, hornist; and the entire brass and percussion sections.

Not to be outdone, needless to say, the strings, as has been mentioned above, also demonstrated their outstanding mettal. We were grateful for the beauty of the viola section, not often accorded such prominence, but used so effectively by Dvorak in the famous ‘Largo’ movement containing the tune probably most familiar to most listeners, to portray perhaps the homesickness of the composer. Just before the final burst of effervescence and irrepressible energy of the new country, the short duet by concertmaster Linda Hsu and principal cellist Stephen Feldman movingly expressed what might have been the true "personal" feelings of Dvorak about his entire American experience.

Finally, any Conway resident who missed the spectacular 2011-2012 season, but who might be inclined to savor the vivid experience of the Conway Symphony Orchestra, will be amply rewarded next year by a 6 program 2012-2013 season that includes the customary wide-ranging diversity of styles, moods and sounds that has become a hallmark of this fine jewel of the ever-growing cultural crown that represents the best of the city.

Watch for the announcements.

The return of Maestro Israel Getzov will be welcome as we also will remember with relish the wonderful musical experiences brought to us by his colleague Maestra Amy Chang. Both artists have given audiences, students and professional musicians alike a rare treat for the city. Hats off to both of them!!! We have been much blessed!

Dr. Kay Kraeft of Conway is president of Songs Unlimited Inc., sponsor of the Songs Across the Americas Festivals.