Annapolis Symphony Orchestra conductor Gisele Ben-Dor definitely saved her best for last.
This past weekend's ambitious all-French program clearly inspired the conductor and her orchestra. They combined with a talented young pianist to bring off the most satisfying concert of Ben-Dor's initial season on the Maryland Hall podium.
The concert began with the exotic "Bacchanale" from Saint-Saens' opera "Samson and Delilah" and progressed to Faure's Ballade for Piano and Orchestra and the Symphonic Variations of Cesar Franck. The soloist in the Ballade and Variations was Tomer Lev, a 24-year-old Israeli pianist who has won major international prizes in Athens, Tokyo and his native country.
The concluding work was none other than Hector Berlioz's one-of-a-kind "Symphonie Fantastique," the sprawling five-movement affair that set the world on its ear at its Paris premierein 1830 and continues to amaze 16 decades later.
The "Fantastique" is a stiff test for both orchestra and conductor, and the ASO/Ben-Dor collaboration was, on balance, admirable.
The opening "Reveriesand Passions" was dreamily atmospheric and nicely sustained. The waltz was suitably lilting and the phantasmagorial craziness of the "March to the Scaffold" and concluding "Witches' Sabbath" came through quite effectively.
Only the third movement failed to gel. Despite some very nice playing of the "idee fixe" theme by the cellos, the "Scenes from the Country" never coalesced into a sustained, coherent whole.
There was, however, excellent playing throughout the work. The extra violins and cellos hired for the occasion were clearly worth the money. The bassoons were terrific in setting the scene at the scaffold, while the clarinet solo in the "Witches' Sabbath" sounded as piquantly bizarre as Berlioz intended it. The surrealistic "Dies Irae" ("Day of Wrath") here also was riveting, intoned raspingly by the trombones and tuba. There was much to admire.
There was also much to appreciate from Lev in the works by Faure and Franck. His tone is elegant and clear, and he has a true flair for the French idiom. His Symphonic Variation was searchingly intense.
The opening of the Faure Ballade was stated in a tasteful, reserved manner, but the young Israeli's sound became increasingly luxuriant as those uniquely poetic French harmonies began to roll by. The flashier arpeggio sequences demonstrated that he has the fingers to go along with his aesthetic sensibilities. Only once, in a particularly animated passage late in the Symphonic Variations, did those fingers desert him, and then, only briefly.
Both works were solidly coordinated by the conductor and well-played by the orchestra, though there were spots when the players might have given more in volume and intensity.
The Saint-Saens "Bacchanale" was appropriately colorful.
While this program brings Gisele Ben-Dor's first ASO season to a close, it also helps set an agenda for the future.
As much as I enjoyed this concert, there were times that I found myself wanting more in the way of intensity and volume from the orchestra. The Saint-Saens sounded tame at its conclusion. There were instances in the Symphonic Variations when it seemed theorchestra was playing in mono while the piano sang out stereophonically.
I suspect this is Maryland Hall at work, and I think the No. 1 priority for next season is for Ben-Dor to continue coming to termswith this acoustic wasteland and achieving ways to counter its deadening effects.
Additional personnel will help. So might the addition of risers.
But the No. 1 antidote is string players willing to play into their sound in a committed fashion, and wind players who carry each and every phrase to its ultimate conclusion, bar lines be damned. Anything less the hall shoots down.
It was Ben-Dor's admirable ability to tap into this energy source that powered the orchestra through "Symphonie Fantastique," hall or no hall.
The trick is to sustain that intense sound over an entire season. With Beethoven's "Eroica," the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony and Violin Concerto, plus the Mozart Requiem already on the boards for next season, they're going to need it.
A pair of concerts remains on the agenda for this season. Yuval Zaliouk, laureate conductor of the Toledo Symphony, will conduct Bernstein, Copland and Brahms in April.