Swiss orchestra paints exciting, vivid `Pictures'

Concert: Mussorgsky/Ravel masterpiece is given a stirring, evocative rendition in performance at the Naval Academy.

Review

Arundel Live

October 23, 2003|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Music lovers with a bit of mileage on them remember the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande fondly from the palmy days of the "Long Playing Record" (LP) when, under the baton of its founding conductor Ernest Ansermet, the Swiss orchestra made numerous recordings for London Records.

Still based in Geneva, the orchestra maintains a lower international profile these days. But, as was demonstrated Tuesday night at the Naval Academy's Alumni Hall, the Suisse Romande remains a formidable ensemble under the baton of its chief conductor and artistic director, Pinchas Steinberg.

Steinberg, his players and the budding superstar pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet came to Annapolis for this program of Cesar Franck's Le Chasseur Maudit, Camille Saint-Saens' 2nd Piano Concerto and Maurice Ravel's kaleidoscopic orchestral arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky's piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition, under the auspices of the Academy's Vice Admiral Eliot Bryant and Miriam Bryant Distinguished Artists Series.

You wouldn't call Steinberg, an Israeli trained in Germany and the United States, a hurler of interpretive thunderbolts from the podium, but he is a consummate professional who knows how to deliver the aesthetic goods.

The Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures is a standard repertory blockbuster that most professional orchestras can deliver in their sleep - and often do. Not these folks.

What we were treated to was a highly pictorial Pictures full of atmosphere and unhurried flourishes of rhetorical expression.

The recurring "Promenades," meant to symbolize an art lover strolling among the paintings on musical display, were taken at a deliberate pace, the better to convey respect and admiration for the images about to be encountered.

Best of all was the way each Promenade changed emotional character to reflect and foreshadow aspects of the diverse works of art.

Steinberg's restrained and respectful approach paid dividends elsewhere as well.

In the musical portrait of Paris' Tuileries Gardens, the woodwind runs (so often a hyperactive blur) spoke eloquently. The "Ballet of the Chicks" was "danced" with a charm that elicited some affectionate chuckles from the audience, while the "Market of Limoges" fairly exploded into action thanks to Steinberg's careful buildup to the scene.

Despite intonation problems in "Cum mortuis in lingua mortua" and some less-than-ideal trumpet work from the Suisse Romande principal, this was deft music-making of exemplary taste and sophistication, and we were the better for having heard it.

Saint-Saens' G minor concerto always has struck me as the Maurice Chevalier of the piano and orchestra repertoire, as it oozes amiability, accessibility and smooth Gallic charm even in its more clangorous moments.

When I hear the grand Lisztian cadenza that begins the work in such a riveting manner, I just smile because I know it's only a matter of time before the lilting, playful "Allegro Scherzando" bounces in to set the real tone of the piece.

With Thibaudet on hand to do the solo honors, the results couldn't have been more poetic. The Chopinesque cascades of upward and downward notes were suitably liquid, while the aforementioned "Allegro Scherzando" tripped happily into its galumphing second theme.

While Alumni Hall has been described by one conductor as "the place sound goes to die," a hearty balance was achieved between piano and orchestra, and the requisite elegance was fully audible to all.

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