Pass The Baton -- Conductor Derby Is Off And Running

October 10, 1990|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing writer

They're off and running.

The Annapolis Symphony's 1990-1991 conducting derby got under way Saturday evening with the season's inaugural concert conducted by David Alan Miller. The 29-year-old associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is one of six candidates for the permanent directorship of the Annapolis orchestra.

In a program highlighted by Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances" and Antonin Dvorak's immensely popular symphony "From the New World," Miller more than justified his selection as a finalist before an unusually demonstrative Maryland Hall audience.

Also appearing at this concert, which opened ASO's 30th anniversary season, was the Annapolis Brass Quintet -- one local institution saluting another. After performing three works in the chamber brass idiom, the ABQ was joined by the orchestra in Baltimore composer Ray Sprenkle's "Quaker Bottom" and "Baroque Fanfares."

There is much to say about David Alan Miller and the vast majority of it is very, very positive.

Above all, he is a musical extrovert, an enthusiastic communicator whose vibrant artistic personality puts his programs across. A reticent, dispassionate purveyor of musical ideas he is not, at least not in the works by Borodin and Dvorak where, truly, he wore his heart on his sleeve.

Miller is admirably attuned to the rhythmic energy of music. Any conductor can make a sonic splash in Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances," excerpted from his opera "Prince Igor," but it is another thing entirely to make the dances actually dance.

But Miller's beat, while vigorous, is also supple and evocative. These dances ought to transcend visceral excitement as sensual, exotic colors burst forth. This conductor was very much in sync with the whirling interludes of dramatic movement that take place as royal captives, seductive women and the Great Khan's frenetic subjects dance wildly across the operatic stage. Miller's biography notes that he has served as a conductor for the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Perhaps those experiences enhanced his ability to tap into that rhythmic vitality that provides music with its own inner choreography.

Only a few anxious measures of messy syncopation in the final dance marred an otherwise terrific performance.

There also seems to be little question of Miller's ability to motivate and involve his players. Clearly, the musicians responded to him in a very positive manner, creating a full, rich sound that carried nicely through the auditorium. Given the acoustical misery of Maryland Hall, that in itself is no small achievement.

Many accounts of the "New World" symphony are well-scrubbed, "just plain folks" readings that highlight the rustic charm or the American melodies that so captivated the Czech composer.

This wasn't one of them. Miller turned in a "New World" of considerable weight, breadth and eloquence. Under his baton the work became a portrait of America from a composer operating squarely within the Central European Brahmsian symphonic tradition. Sonorities and emotions ran deep.

Less convincing was the orchestra's contribution to the works of Ray Sprenkle. Clearly the composer features the brass and assumes that the orchestra is just along for the ride. But Miller and his players seemed all too willing to take a back seat without offering much of a fuss. The playing was overly deferential and a tad blah, though thanks to the pizazz of the ABQ, the end result was certainly a positive one.

In sum, David Alan Miller looks and sounds like the real thing; a major talent. From where I sit, it looks like the ante has been upped after only a single contribution to the pot.

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