Columbia Orchestra plays its heart out

Musicians deserve kudos for tackling Stravinsky

Review

Howard Live

April 22, 2004|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In general, amateur and semiprofessional orchestras give wide berth to works such as Igor Stravinsky's Petrushka, and who can blame them?

Premiered as a ballet score for the Ballet Russes of Paris in 1911 and refurbished by Stravinsky as a full-scale work for the concert hall in 1947, Petrushka is a mighty tall order for all but the most elite orchestral players. Its harmonies flirt with bi-tonality. Instruments (especially the trumpets and clarinets) are assigned murderously difficult parts, and a host of mind-boggling rhythms fly out of the orchestral textures nonstop.

So when word came that Maestro Jason Love's Columbia Orchestra was going to have a go at Stravinsky's spiky tale of a puppet brought to ruin by a set of all-too-human weaknesses, I couldn't help wondering if valor hadn't overwhelmed discretion in the local ensemble's programming department.

But kudos to one and all, for the Columbians played their collective hearts out Saturday at Jim Rouse Theatre with one of the thorniest masterworks of all, confirming that their conductor has a penchant not only for conducting 20th-century fare, but for teaching it, as well. What was most striking about this Petrushka was the manner in which the players paid knowing, wholehearted tribute to the divergent strands of Stravinsky's genius.

Theatrical elements emerged with immense flair; plenty of excitement at the Shrovetide Fair, a sultry take on the Moor who wins Petrushka's beloved for himself, and great abandon in the Russian folk melodies that impart such ethnically charged twists and turns to the story and the choreography.

Exceptional technical preparation from all quarters - flutes, trumpets and clarinets in particular - meant that proper homage could be paid to Stravinsky's awesome powers of orchestration.

Above all, it is a score animated by rhythm, and the orchestra's idiomatic mastery of the shifting meters that give the piece such a kinesthetic kick was admirable indeed.

From the goofy waltz theme in I, to the surging Rite of Spring-like effects in II, to the marvelous sense of lift imparted to the big dance theme in IV, rhythmic sensitivity was everywhere.

If there was a problem with Petrushka, it was that Stravinsky was so dominant on the bill that it was hard to redial the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto performed by soloist Igor Yuzefovich, the Peabody graduate student who won last year's Yale Gordon Competition.

Yuzefovich summoned up an attractive tone, while the orchestral accompaniment was forthright enough. Yet at no time did the concerto go airborne.

Indeed, given the bold, bracing Stravinskian flavors that would follow, one would have to conclude that this Mendelssohn suffered from an extreme case of vanilla.

As the feather is mounted in the orchestra's cap for such a prodigious Petrushka, I can't help but regret that more music lovers weren't on hand to hear what Columbia's local band is capable of.

This orchestra deserves far more of an audience than it gets, and that the sorry excuses for the post-9/11 decline in our support for the arts are wearing thin. It must be said: Attendance at Saturday's concert was nothing less than a civic disgrace.

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