Columbia Orchestra soars in season's first concert

Howard Live

Review

October 17, 2002|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the first concert of its 25th anniversary season, the Columbia Orchestra killed a snake, ambled through the eastern European countryside on a tour arranged by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak and welcomed a distinguished hometown soloist to Jim Rouse Theatre.

Conductor Jason Love began this milestone season Saturday with Silvestre Revueltas' "Sensemaya," a rhythmically complex, seven-minute work inspired by Afro-Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen's poem about the ritualized killing of a snake. It's not music for the faint of heart (or for the faint of rhythm), yet the players followed Love straight into the primitive brutality that permeates Revueltas' dense, polyrhythmic conception.

Requisite tension was built inexorably by a succession of rhythmic variations brought vividly to life by the percussion section, and by the authority with which the ominous 7/8 pulse of the snake chant was expressed all across the orchestra.

Needless to say, "Sensemaya" is exceptionally difficult to master, and it was impossible not to be impressed by the flair of the local orchestra in bringing it off.

Revueltas' evocative Latin idiom is becoming better known by the day - a triumph of aesthetic justice to be sure - and it speaks volumes about Love's affinity for the modern idiom that he was able to bring his players on board so successfully. (In case you're interested, one fine sampling of Revueltas' works comes from Gisele-Ben Dor, the Uruguyan-Israeli conductor who spent five years at the helm of the Annapolis Symphony in the mid-1990s before joining the Santa Barbara Symphony, with whom she recorded the program for Koch.)

Dvorak's 8th Symphony is both a charmer and a bit of a terror to play. Essentially lyrical in conception until the blazing, fanfare-filled final movement, it is always in motion, always building up to something, and can sound episodic if not downright disjointed when its elusive sense of flow is impeded.

There were some aimless moments - especially in the third movement, where the waltz themes lost impetus as they changed color and form. And there were a few too many missed notes (including a couple of inexcusable "solos" resulting from mental errors) to call the playing immaculate.

What was admirable, though, was the overall character of the playing. I heard plenty of nobility in the cello theme that starts the symphony off with such dignified authority. In the second movement, the strings and woodwinds exchanged their descending scales with irresistible charm, and the violins were all sweetness and light as they waltzed into the third movement. And kudos to the trumpets for their snappy but controlled opening fanfare in the final movement.

The orchestra also welcomed a distinguished visitor last weekend. Herbert Greenberg of Columbia, the longtime concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony who resigned that prestigious post last year, joined the locals for a go at Max Bruch's impassioned G-minor Concerto.

Now, it goes without saying that Greenberg is a gifted violinist whose leadership talents are still very much in demand. (The very fine Oregon Symphony has snapped him up as their Guest Concertmaster for the 2002-2003 season.) But the Bruch is a voluptuous, romantic concerto full of hot tunes and arching phrases guaranteed to quicken the pulse of an audience and, one would think, a soloist as well. So why, despite moments of undeniable beauty, did I hear so little in the way of ardor, bravura and full-throated passion from this soloist?

Perhaps there were elements of physical discomfort on stage. I know our recent problems with public safety kept collaborative rehearsal time to a minimum, although the orchestra certainly sounded primed and ready to go. Maybe the soloist simply hears the work as a more sober and chaste affair than I do. Nevertheless, this is a score that should soar. And it didn't.

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