Dunner has Prokofiev dancing

Concert: The Annapolis Symphony's kinesthetic conductor finds his perfect match in the Russian composer's powerful `Romeo and Juliet' ballet score.

Review

October 03, 2002|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Never has Leslie B. Dunner's flair for rhythm and movement on the podium been more germane to a review in these pages. For never in his four-year tenure with the Annapolis Symphony has a program been more dominated by work geared to kinesthetic expression than the one Dunner and the ASO presented last weekend.

The work is Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, the brilliant score the composer felt compelled to write as an heir to Russia's tradition of grand ballet on the order of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.

Prokofiev crafted three abbreviated suites from his complete ballet, and Dunner chose excerpts from all of them for last weekend's concerts.

Search the record stores and you'll find recordings of Romeo and Juliet on which the score's choreographic ruffles and flourishes are played down, as conductors content themselves with tone-painting the Shakespearean scenery and powering up Prokofiev's pile-driving rhythms when they appear. Dance elements, by contrast, are left to take care of themselves.

This was not one of those performances. Dunner, who spent the formative periods of his career in the ballet pit, gave us a ballet score that really danced. Pick a sequence -- any sequence -- and it was virtually impossible not to picture bodies whirling around the stage as the extraordinary music played.

The strut of the "Morning Dance," the lift Dunner's strings imparted to the lush sadness of "Romeo at Juliet's Grave" and the irresistible bounce he brought to the "Dance" Prokofiev tossed in to give his corps de ballet a moment in the sun were three such remarkable interludes.

Changes of atmosphere and mood were intensely drawn, as per the manic ups and downs of Shakespearean melodrama. Ethereal strings suited Romeo's first glimpse of Juliet to a tee. The short-lived enchantment of Juliet's wedding day was captured beautifully by violins posing as mandolins in the "Morning Song," while the desperate fury of Tybalt's death (one of the great musical utterances of the 20th century, for my money) was rammed home by expressive tone painting, par excellence.

Superb playing emanated from every section of the orchestra Friday. Special kudos must go to the new front-desk violas and to acting concertmistress Rita Lee, who were splendid in "Romeo and Juliet Before Parting."

Though Richard Wagner's opera Rienzi has fallen out of favor these days, its brassy and fun overture is still very much with us, and Dunner's troops sounded like they were having a wonderful time with it.

I must admit, though, that my sense of excitement ebbed some during Franz Joseph Haydn's D major Cello Concerto. Soloist Daniel Lee displayed immense technical gifts as he flew around the fingerboard coaxing double-stop after double-stop out of his instrument.

Still, I heard little in the way of the delectably turned phrases and surges of affectionate warmth that turn competent performances of this piece into memorable ones. Lee is a gifted 22-year-old, no doubt about it, but I couldn't help wondering whether Haydn's more rambunctious Concerto in C major would have been a better fit.

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