Columbia group tackles difficult music program

Challenge: Despite some problems, there was much to admire in the orchestra's performance.

Howard Live

December 18, 2003|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Though there was nothing Christmasy about the program, the Columbia Orchestra added some much-appreciated joie de vivre to the world Saturday evening in a program at Jim Rouse Theatre, titled The French Connection.

True to the theme, conductor Jason Love and his players spent most of the concert honing in on the Gallic sensibilities of 20th-century composer Maurice Ravel and on George Gershwin's bright, sassy An American in Paris.

The delicate, colorful, almost cruelly exposed instrumental textures that animate Ravel's music pose daunting technical challenges for any ensemble, let alone a community orchestra, so the musicians had their work cut out for them. Though technical problems surfaced in works such as "Pavane for a Dead Princess," "Alborada del Gracioso" ("The Morning Song of the Jester") and "Bolero," there also was plenty to admire.

Take the "Alborada", one of Ravel's numerous salutes to the dashing rhythms and colors of Spain. Some scratchy strings and a few tongue-tied wind passages notwithstanding, the bass drum entrance near the beginning (one of my favorite all-time moments) provided a wonderful jolt and then some, while the work's many passages for full orchestra danced with infectious joy.

The treacherous horn solo in the gorgeous "Pavane" went well, while most of the Columbia principals (especially the visiting saxophonist) thrust into the spotlight by the repeated melodies of Ravel's Bolero performed admirably. (Still, I wish the drum beat had been steadier and the trombonist a bit more up to the solo that's one of the most difficult orchestral excerpts for the trombone.)

Ravel's Tzigane, a knuckle-busting work for solo violin and orchestra, was performed by Kevin Qin, senior division winner of the local orchestra's 2003 Young Artist Competition.

Not only does Qin, a Centennial High School sophomore, play with passion and verve, but he is a cool customer, as well. When one of the pegs on his 19th-century French violin slipped midperformance, he immediately accepted the violin of concertmistress Brenda Anna, tuned it, then jumped back into the rhapsody with the new violin - without losing his poise or his place. Bravo.

Violinist Winnie Au, an eighth-grader at Patapsco Middle School who won this year's Junior Division, crossed the border into Germany with the first movement of Max Bruch's G-minor concerto. She is in possession of a plush tone and sensitive musical spirit. When her technique catches up, as it surely will, she will be a lovely violinist.

The evening's best playing was during Gershwin's An American in Paris, the jazzy, melodic work inspired by the composer's trip to Paris in the spring of 1928.

From the opening honks of the French taxis to the sultry blues "sung" by the composer's homesick hero, the performance was admirable. Solos from the trumpet, flute, clarinet, tuba and violin were delightful, with Love conducting like a man in love with Paris, Gershwin and his orchestra at the same time.

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