Visiting conductor puts ASO through gypsy-themed paces

Novo among candidates for music director post that Dunner had held

Howard Live

September 23, 2004|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Annapolis Symphony's 2003-2004 concert season, cobbled together quickly in the wake of the orchestra's decision to part company with conductor Leslie Dunner, yielded only two bona fide candidates for the permanent conductorship of the orchestra.

They are Lara Webber, the former assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, and Emil de Cou, the current assistant with Washington's National Symphony Orchestra.

Now the plot will thicken as the new concert season opens and the search committee begins sizing up several additional candidates.

The first aspirant to step up to the podium this time around was Jose-Luis Novo, the young Spanish maestro who came to Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts last weekend for a program of Johann Strauss, Manuel de Falla, Silvestre Revueltas, Maurice Ravel and Zoltan Kodaly - all composers inspired by gypsy life.

Novo was appointed music director of New York's Binghamton Philharmonic in February last year after that orchestra's international search, which attracted more than 200 applicants. Before that appointment, he was assistant conductor of the world-class Cincinnati Symphony. Since 1999, he has been on the conducting faculty of the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, N.C.

Last Saturday, Novo came across as an inspiring communicator who bonded with his musicians in a short time.

Limber, emphatic and unafraid to let his body do the talking, Novo is an animated presence on the podium. However, he is anything but a show-off, as his body language is in harmony with the ebbs and flows of the music, not with the assertion of his ego.

The orchestra seemed to adore playing for him, digging deep to create the swirling atmospheric effects he was after in such off-the-beaten-path fare as de Falla's flamenco-inspired ballet score, El Amor Brujo, Ravel's Tzigane - a single-movement gypsy rhapsody for solo violin and orchestra - and Kodaly's Hungarian-to-the-core Peacock Variations.

Special kudos must be extended to flutist Kim Valerio, cellist Denise Setny Nathanson, oboist Fatma Daglar, trumpeter William Adcock, acting principal clarinet player Kathleen Gardiner Mulcahy and harpist Susan Saurwein, who was put through her paces as never before, playing a prominent role in four of the program's five works. All contributed solos of commendable style and grace.

My gut tells me, though, that Novo's repertoire choices, however clever they were thematically, may make some a bit skittish about him. True, Ravel's Tzigane is a potboiler supreme, especially with an incendiary violinist like Elissa Koljonen on hand, while Strauss' Gypsy Baron Overture is a charmer redolent of the Hungarian and Viennese reaches of the Danube.

But the twin centerpieces, Falla's Amor Brujo and Kodaly's Peacock Variations, are a tougher sell. Both are full of colorful, exotically conceived musical episodes, but they are just that - episodes. One is a lengthy dance score composed in short bursts of kinesthetic energy, while the other is a set of rather fitful variations on a Hungarian folk tune that never quite hit emotional paydirt the way, say, an organically conceived symphony does.

There's no doubt that this guy could muscle up and deliver performances of Brahms or Rachmaninoff that would pin everyone's ears back. Whether the selection committee agrees or not remains to be seen.

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