The Ben-Dor era in Annapolis Symphony Orchestra history began this past weekend with a pair of concerts at Maryland Hall.
On hand to usher in Gisele Ben-Dor's tenure as conductor of the local orchestra was violinist Herbert Greenberg, concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who served as soloist in the D major concerto of Johannes Brahms.
Felix Mendelssohn's "Reformation" Symphony, so named for its final movement which celebrates Martin Luther's hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," and Glinka's peppy overture to "Ruslan and Lyudmila" rounded out the program.
All told, it was an acceptable concert, reasonably well-played, though the ultimate effect was one of questions raised rather than issues resolved.
Greenberg, the 42-year-old concertmaster of the world-class orchestra up the road, sought to avoid at all costs the characterization of the Brahms Concerto as a vehicle for passionate, extroverted, Romantic fiddling.
Rather, he seemed to want to imbue each phrase with a restrained purity that would emphasize the concerto's sweet lyricism while paring down its more expansionist tendencies. Greenberg seemed intent on using his intimate toneto embroider a rapt obbligato atop the score rather than declare theviolin's independence from the symphonic accompaniment.
This interpretation goes against the grain in an age when each new "hot shot" violinist seems more intent on showing how effortlessly pyrotechnics can be achieved than in illuminating the beauty of the music.
In short, Greenberg's vision of the Brahms required a certain amount of guts and I'd like nothing better than to say that it worked well. Unfortunately, I don't think it did.
At numerous junctures, the soloist seemed so intent on making his restrained position clear, that there was a shortage of the impetus so essential in projecting Brahms' lengthy, arching phrases across the bar lines, out to the audience and into the hearts of his listeners. There seemed to be more energy devoted to pulling back than reaching out. In his desire to scale down the dimensions of the concerto, he wound up diminishing the work's emotional impact.
Greenberg also picked the worst possible hall in which to attempt this Brahmsian experiment. The acoustical gremlins of Maryland Hall are adept at turning a perfunctory "mezzo forte" into a vapid "piano" and making an ethereal entrance sound damningly tentative. An interpretation predicated on soft singing is doomed in a dry, congested space where softness will simply not sing.
To complicatematters further, the ASO players and their conductor obviously had no intention of joining Greenberg in his personalized, chamber-scale Brahms. The orchestra simply muscled up and delivered a solidly energetic accompaniment that paid little attention to the soloist's iconoclastic aspirations.
Wind solos routinely covered the violin and the"give and take" that characterizes a successful concerto performancewas rarely in evidence.
There were some lovely moments when the parties were in synch. At the hushed conclusion of the first movement cadenza for example, the orchestra stayed right with the soloist and created an affecting, deeply personal resolution to the movement.
Greenberg also got the orchestra's attention in the second movement which made for some hauntingly beautiful moments in the Adagio.
But, for the most part, the participants were simply not on the same interpretive page with the soloist quietly rhapsodizing his way through the score, the orchestra overtaking him in the volume contest, and the glory of Brahms getting lost somewhere in between.
Maestra Ben-Dor brought forth some particularly vigorous playing in the Mendelssohn symphony.
There was intensity to spare in the opening movement and the gorgeous "Andante" of the third was accorded a deeply committed, emotional reading. A suitably ringing statement of the "Mighty Fortress" theme brought the work to a triumphal conclusion.
At times,one might have wished for a more spritely touch. There was some over-swelling from the trumpets in the first movement introduction and the lovely second movement seemed a tad unsmiling.
Occasionally in this symphony, I had the feeling that there were beams of Mendelssohnian light that never made it out of the dense orchestral texture.
The concert opened with a bounding, rather out-of-control account of the Glinka overture in which the winds drowned out the strings and thetimpani obliterated everyone else.