Dunner's looming departure colors a strong, evocative ASO performance


January 30, 2003|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's hard to imagine extramusical matters intruding when Mozart, Schumann and Ravel are heading a concert bill, but as I entered Maryland Hall on Saturday to hear the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, I wasn't so sure the music would dominate.

This was the first concert since the ASO executive board decided not to renew conductor Leslie B. Dunner's contract for next season, igniting a firestorm of criticism. Outside the hall, Dunner supporters handed out white ribbons, protesting the decision.

The audience greeted Dunner with a warm and sustained standing ovation as he took the stage, after which everyone got down to the business of making and appreciating great music.

With the exception of a tame, orchestrally ragged rendition of Mozart's French Horn Concerto No. 3, what followed was a retrospective of the considerable virtues that Dunner has brought to the Maryland Hall podium.

In his five years with the orchestra, Dunner has never shied away from the unfamiliar. That spirit of adventure brought us Hovhaness' Overture for Trombone and Strings, with the orchestra's first trombone David Perkel in the spotlight.

Almost everything Hovhaness wrote is imbued with deep spiritual overtones, and this work is no exception. It is divided into two sections: the first, a lyrical statement delivered by the trombone over ethereal strings; the second, a more vigorous, churning interlude paced by the violins and cellos. It was beautifully realized, especially by the trombonist who tapped into the mysticism of the score with soulful, sustained tone and graceful phrasing.

Dunner's penchant for rhythmic buoyancy came to the forefront in Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, a sensual 20th- century evocation of the spirit of Francois Couperin, master of the French Baroque.

The spirit of 18th-century dances animates many baroque suites, putting Dunner in his element with his stickwork attuned to the inner choreography of Ravel's work.

Colors swirled, largely because of oboist Fatma Daglar (the work is an oboe concerto in everything but name); and the Minuet was as elegant and courtly as the concluding Rigaudon was snappy.

Robert Schumann's 2nd Symphony, which can seem so episodic and repetitious in lesser hands, was realized like the great masterpiece it is.

A wonderful sense of flow was established in the opening introduction, though it could have used more sound from top to bottom. The string section seemed a little understaffed Saturday night, though there can be no quibbling about the zippy articulation Dunner got out of his violins in the fiendishly difficult second movement. Many an orchestral violin chair has been won or lost by an applicant's handling of those excerpts.

Romantic sensibilities flowered in the Adagio espressivo, (one of the great symphonic utterances of the 19th century) as the concluding movement burst with joy and triumph.

As an encore, the conductor chose Emil Darzins' Valse Melancolique, a bittersweet, mysterious waltz that spotlights the clarinet, Dunner's instrument. As clarinetist Fred Jacobowitz played the solo line with quiet intensity, the symbolism was not lost.

Dunner's departure is evoking melancholy and more than a hint of mystery for many, including the conductor himself. Darzins' unassuming little turn-of-the-century bonbon expressed those sentiments more eloquently than all the letters to the editor in the world.

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