The Bob Hope Performing Arts Center at the U.S. Naval Academy began paying handsome dividends to music-lovers Thursday evening with a concert by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, one of Germany's better second-rung ensembles.
Under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach, the Austrian-born pianist-turned-conductor who directs the Houston Symphony,the Bamberg presented the "Carnival Overture" and "New World" Symphony of Dvorak along with the E-Flat Cello Concerto of Dmitri Shostakovich. The soloist was none other than Heinrich Schiff, one of the world's premiere cellists, whose recordings on the EMI and Philips labelsare among the best-received releases anywhere.
Much first-class music-making was heard. But first: the hall.
Let me be the first to write that the Hope Center, with its 1,500-seat auditorium configuration, is very hospitable to symphonic music. There may be a bit too much poured concrete to foster the illusion thatyou've arrived at Carnegie Hall, but with the judicious use of curtains and other spatial manipulations, basketball seems very far off. The attractively lighted stage area with its off-white acoustical tiles provides a good backdrop for an orchestra.
Acoustically, we havea winner. The Hope Center does not exactly caress orchestral sound with a glossy warmth, but this is a lively, clarifying space that amply supports all sections of the orchestra.
Bass tones sounded natural and strong, and I detected no muddiness that might have obscured the individual voices of the woodwinds or the sonorities of the brass.
Only the violins sounded in need of a boost, but that may have been more the fiddlers than the hall. Mind you, this is a very good orchestra, but that was "B" as in Bamberg, not Berlin.
The Bamberg Symphony is, however, a respected, accomplished ensemble in a country whose government makes it its business to fully support orchestras -- unlike other so-called civilized Western democracies I could name. Under Eschenbach, a conductor who is doing such a commendable job leading the Houston Symphony back from tough economic and artistic times, the Bamberg players did the academy proud in this inaugural symphonicconcert at the Hope Center.
They began with a bristling account of Dvorak's "Carnival Overture" in which all the musical flags were thoroughly unfurled. With the exception of a rather anemic principal flute, Bamberg boasts top-notch woodwinds and an excellent brass section, all of whose members played significant roles in communicating thejoy of the Dvorak overture.
Schiff and Eschenbach then proceeded to turn in the most searing account of the Shostakovich concerto I'veever heard.
This was a reading that went straight for the artistic jugular.
The "Jocular March" of the first movement quivered withso much intensity that there was nothing good-humored about it. Jocularity gave way to something far more momentous.
The second movement featured gorgeously sustained playing, dead-on intonation and sensational participation from the Bamberg's principal horn and clarinet.
Schiff delivered the more lyrical portions of the extended third-movement cadenza with haunting introspection but, as the writing became more agitated, he flew furiously across the fingerboard in a dramatic assault on the resources of his instrument. He proceeded to play the fourth movement in the same manner that Franz Klammer skied the Olympic downhill a few years back. What an extraordinary performance!
The concert concluded with the Eschenbach/Bamberg version of Dvorak's ever-popular "New World" Symphony.
Anyone who expected a stern, Teutonic reading was in for a surprise, and the American folksinessthat can pervade this work was also kept to a minimum. This "New World" seemed conceived in a spirit of elegant Viennese gemutlichkeit. Eschenbach's approach gave us a warm-hearted, songful journey through the score, though there were moments of aimlessness. In the first movement, for example, the conductor frequently pulled back his tempos dramatically, making it clear that he had every desire to "stop and smell the roses." The effect was lyrical and lovely.
In the famous second movement, however, he stopped to enjoy the scenery so often that the impetus of the journey was frequently lost. A so-so English horn solo didn't help matters.
Movements three and four seemed more buoyant than emphatic and were thus in line with the conductor's "off the beaten path" conception of the piece.
Let me say that there are a few things the powers-that-be at the Hope Center might do to improve the concert-going ambience of their hall.
During Heinrich Schiff's extraordinary Shostakovich cadenza, a ventilation system kicked on, making it sound as if this master cellist was performing in a wind tunnel for a time. As if that weren't enough, what sounded like an elevator bell rang in the background at the same time. Not good, folks. Not good.
And throughout the concert, one uniformed fellow repeatedly walked from the exit door down the aisle toward the stage as though it were his duty to patrol there.
Sit down, son. That's an order.