Gatti fills house with sounds of interpretive magic

Director led group at Kennedy Center with power, solidity

MusicReview

February 18, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Folks who came to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's performance Monday night at the Kennedy Center hoping for fireworks were not disappointed - depending on what kind of fireworks they expected, that is. The music-making was incendiary, stunning in both intensity and individuality, but there were no post-performance explosives.

Not so last week, when the RPO's music director, Danielle Gatti, stunned an audience that had just enthusiastically applauded the ensemble's concert at the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Florida. His encore was a lecture on the rudeness of the audience and the deficiencies of the hall. News reports declared Gatti made a royal fool of himself, and the concert promoters promptly canceled the RPO's next scheduled gig with him in Naples during the 2005-2006 season.

Since the incident, Gatti, his management and RPO staffers have been mum. For what it's worth, the scuttlebutt I picked up on Monday after the Kennedy Center event indicated Gatti had been genuinely miffed by distractions in the house and conditions on the Naples stage that necessitated an awkward seating for musicians.

Whether any of that truly justified a case of conduct (or) unbecoming is debatable. But I'm inclined to excuse anyone who can create the kind of interpretive magic Gatti did on Monday.

The program, another notable presentation by the Washington Performing Arts Society, consisted of two repertoire standards, but there was nothing standard about the treatment each received. Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2, with Garrick Ohlsson delivering muscle, lyrical elegance and tonal richness at the keyboard and Gatti providing keenly attentive partnering from the podium, had a bristling energy, even when the tempo slowed and the volume softened. (Ohlsson will play the same concerto next season with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.)

The finale, which sometimes seems a rather lightweight last word for everything that comes before, took on added body and force here, thanks to the propulsive sparks from soloist, conductor and orchestra alike.

The RPO strings made a dark, cohesive sound throughout (first and second violins sat opposite each other, a once-normal, natural stereo arrangement more orchestras should use today); the wind sections were no less impressive in tone and polish. The cello solo in the Andante sang out with compelling urgency.

With Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, the concert hit an even higher peak. Gatti went further with tempo fluctuation and phrase-bending than in the just-released recording he and the RPO made of this work on the Harmonia Mundi label. I'm sure some folks were appalled at such things as the huge slow-down for the big lyrical tune in the first movement or the super-elongated pause before the finale's coda. But I ate it all up.

Time and again, Gatti's choices underscored Tchaikovsky's schizoid personality perfectly, and enabled fresh details to emerge from the well-worn score, as in the coda of the finale when the violins' counterpoint to the grand march theme leapt out like darting flames. Although a couple of details, primarily in the brass and woodwinds, could have been a little smoother, the orchestra's overall technical solidity and expressive impact proved extraordinary.

This was one of those rare performances that left me shaken and stirred.

Festival of Song

Since 1988, the New York Festival of Song has brought together superlative artists and imaginative programs to explore and celebrate the vast wealth of vocal music. On Sunday afternoon, festival co-founders and first-rate pianists Steven Blier and Michael Barrett brought one of their most intriguing programs, "At Harlem's Height," to College Park for a co-presentation by the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and the Vocal Arts Society.

It was a terrific opportunity to hear works by Eubie Blake, "Fats" Waller, William Grant Still and other notable black composers who energized American music. There was never any attempt to apply high-art mannerisms to this material, nor to overplay its vernacular quality. Rather, each piece was treated with respect, obvious affection and authentic style. You only had to hear the way Blier played James P. Johnson's Mule Walk Stomp without a single whomping phrase to appreciate just how stylish the concert was.

Three wonderful vocal personalities joined Blier and Barrett - soprano Dana Hanchard, who sang Billy Strayhorn's A Flower is a Lovesome Thing and Hall Johnson's arrangement of I've Heard of a City Called Heaven in particularly touching fashion; tenor Darius de Haas, whose melting interpretation with Strayhorn's Day Dream and exceptionally classy way with Duke Ellington's In a Sentimental Mood will linger long in my ears; and baritone James Martin, who was a model of natural phrasing in Ellington's I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So.

I hope someone will think about bringing the New York Festival of Song to the Baltimore area before too long. We could use the lift.

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