By Robert Bruce Smith/Special to the Journal
He was the one and only: Wade Hampton Lagrone. Lawyer, aviator, tennis player, flutist, dance-band drummer, all-around music enthusiast. And Wade didn’t just “like” music – he passionately loved it, in many different forms, with an unsullied purity of delight rarely found among musical nonprofessionals.
It was in 1971 that Wade (then a prospering local attorney with the law firm currently known as Mitchell McNutt & Sams) astonished his wife, colleagues, and community with the preposterous vision that Tupelo should have a symphony orchestra.
A symphony orchestra – in a town of little more than 20,000 people!
Certainly Wade was already known as a crackerjack lawyer with a nonconformist streak, but this took the cake. How could such a small town support an expensive highbrow “frill” that even Boston and New York found difficult to maintain? Where would the 70-plus musicians – string players, percussionists, woodwind- and brass players – come from? Who would hire them, conduct them, pay them – and who would come to hear them?
Suffice it to say that while some thought Wade’s symphonic Tupelo vision ridiculous, others found it so thrillingly compelling that they pitched in to help. And Saturday night, after tunefully spreading the glorious gospel of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, etc., in our community and region for four decades, the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra proudly kicked off its celebratory 40th concert season at the Link Centre Concert Hall
Introduced and conducted by the TSO’s suave music director, Steven Byess, Saturday’s program consisted of three musical ‘B’s: Beethoven, Bizet, and Brahms. Ludwig van Beethoven’s noble Overture to “Egmont” got things off to a stirringly heroic start, followed by Georges Bizet’s colorful Incidental Music (Suite No. 2) to the 19th-century French drama, “L’Arlesienne.”
But the evening’s crowning glory arrived after intermission, when prizewinning Croatian pianist Martina Filjak joined the TSO to perform Johannes Brahms’ titanic Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor. A stunning young woman of fabulous technique and amazing musical maturity, Filjak grew up amid the bloody Serbo-Croatian War that so ravaged her beautiful Eastern European homeland during the 1990s. Whatever the effect of these childhood horrors, Filjak brought to Brahms’ magnificently daunting concerto a combination of grace, grit, and inner tranquility that was truly winning.
Five years of daring honesty and emotional turmoil were required of Brahms to produce the D Minor, which finally debuted 1859, when he was 25. Lasting more than 40 minutes, it was his first major work, and bears (in the words of musicologist Martin Bookspan) “an indelible imprint of relentless power and youthful passion.” It’s also a beast to play, though this was never evident as Filjak masterfully navigated the rippling arpeggios, lyrical melodies, and thunderous chords of its three gigantic movements. “She was like a force of nature,” a musical friend exclaimed to me afterwards.
Thrilled by an artist of such skill and vision, Byess and the TSO ardently sustained Brahms’ passionate magic from beginning to end, climaxed by thunderstruck applause. Perched on some comfy tuffet in musical Valhalla, Wade H. Lagrone, founder of the Tupelo Symphony exactly 40 years ago, was no doubt smiling broadly.