Comissiona updates romanticism

March 31, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Typically, romanticism is assumed to favor qualities the old school would ascribe to women -- softness, roundness and a pronounced emotionality. But the sort of romanticism Sergiu Comissiona evoked at the Meyerhoff last night suggested a far more enlightened view of femininity, one which emphasized strength and intelligence as much as grace and fervor.

It was an unlikely program to offer such a lesson. Although Rachmaninoff's "Variations on a Theme by Paganini" clearly speaks as much to the mind as the heart, Tchaikovsky's Byronesque "Manfred" symphony usually emphasizes the score's implicit heroism above all else. As for Jacob Druckman's "Summer Lightning," its abstract lines and coloristic voicings seem eons away from traditional notions of romanticism.

As realized by Comissiona, however, there was such an inevitability to the flow of Druckman's ideas that not even its harmonic abstractions could diminish the music's visceral power. It's a work that draws from an unusually large palette, calling for a sizable percussion battery and such rarely heard voices as alto flute and contrabass clarinet. But as much as Comissiona honored the vividness of the score's colors, his emphasis was on the melodic line, and that -- combined with the orchestra's rhythmic acuity -- left the music lighted up like, well, a sky full of summer lightning.

As rich as the shadings were in the Druckman, they were muted in the Rachmaninoff, but this seemed mainly a means of bringing the orchestra's sound into alignment with that of pianist Jon Kimura Parker.

Parker was in many ways perfect for the work, being blessed with ample technique and power to spare. His tone, though, was anything but typical. Hard, bright and slightly cool, it had the strength and elegance of fine porcelain. That hardly kept him from playing up the piquant melodicism of the 18th variation, but Parker shone brightest in the later variations, where the muscular clarity of the playing illuminated the work's thematic ingenuity.

Comissiona and the orchestra brought many of the qualities of the first two works to the "Manfred," but those efforts were to a certain degree undone by the work itself. At nearly an hour, the work evokes a hero's life both in scale and length, and despite sterling performances by the low brass, principal horn David Bakkegard and bass clarinetist Edward Palanker, the performance lacked sufficient focus to maintain momentum to the end.

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