ASO survives Strauss, but stumbles on Tchaikovsky

March 12, 1993|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing Writer

Last Friday's Annapolis Symphony Orchestra concert turned out to be one of those enjoyable, slightly off-center repasts in which the appetizers prove more sumptuous than the main course, though I doubt anyone went home hungry.

The suite from "Der Rosenkavalier," a compilation of "hits" from Richard Strauss' most popular opera, seemed like a suicide mission for a smallish orchestra based in the provinces, but the ASO thrived on this murderous score. Despite some technical glitches, Gisele Ben-Dor's players responded to Strauss' extraordinary demands with top-notch horn playing, lovely solos from the principal oboe, and a contagious sense of good fun, especially in the waltzes that inject the opera with that lilting Viennese flair redolent of Johann Strauss.

Also impressive was Ms. Ben-Dor's handling of Samuel Barber's "First Essay," a marvelously crafted orchestral interlude by the under-appreciated American composer who is at last coming into vogue.

With an appropriately dark, brooding tone established immediately in the low strings, the orchestra explored the music's many twists as it committed itself admirably to the elucidation of Barber's rich ideas and emotions. It was terrific.

With such excellent performances of Strauss and Barber setting the standard, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto -- the concert centerpiece -- had a lot to live up to. It managed with only partial success. The conductor and her soloist, Ruben Gonzalez, delivered a likable, often engaging Tchaikovsky that, unfortunately, took a fair amount of time to settle in on its opening night.

The Gonzalez-ASO collaboration proved antithetical to the glib, flashy Tchaikovskys that over-populate the CD bins. Mr. Gonzalez, the concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is anything but a showman.

Every gesture of his is in service to the music. The "Canzonetta" flowed with unaffected grace and the pyrotechnics of the third movement were brought off with a patrician's sense of reserve.

What was missing, however, was the grand, sweeping energy that makes the first movement such a unique utterance. Though things improved, the opening orchestral statement was bumpy and tentative, while the --ing big theme never opened up.

It took the soloist some time to find himself as well. There were more than a few phrases and harmonics in the first movement that I'm sure didn't speak as eloquently as Mr. Gonzalez would have wanted.

Of the shorter works programmed, only Smetana's "Moldau" lacked distinction. Though played well enough, the piece -- a 19th-century evocation of the river that flows through the composer's Czech homeland -- lost too much energy along the way to culminate in the requisite blaze of patriotic glory. Severe intonation problems made for a fair amount of turbulence en route to the Elbe.

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