Doing Arturo Toscanini proud

Orchestra named in legendM-Fs honor shines in U.S. debut


October 13, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

It takes a certain nerve to name an orchestra after Arturo Toscanini, the iconic Italian conductor who dominated the classical-music world during the first half of the 20th century, setting the gold standard for technical precision and expressive fire. But it became clear early on during its U.S. debut Monday night at the Kennedy Center that the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini has earned the right to bear such a venerable title.

The orchestra is a recent venture of the Toscanini Foundation, based in the same Emilia- Romagna region where Toscanini was born. The choice of its first music director says much about the ensembleM-Fs worth and potential M-y the brilliant American Lorin Maazel, who also leads the New York Philharmonic.

A couple of other non-Italian names were on the roster Monday, including Cuban-American concertmaster Andres Cardenes (who holds the same position at the Pittsburgh Symphony), but, in its openhearted approach to music-making, this couldnM-Ft be a more Italian orchestra.

The Columbus Day program drove that point home, offering a large dose of well-known orchestral excerpts from Italian opera, along with the two most popular orchestral showpieces by Ottorino Respighi.

Under some circumstances, it might be easy to overdose on the sheer melodiousness of the opera items, the voluptuousness of the Respighi, but not here. It was an exhilarating night.

Even on those rare occasions when the musicians lost a little ground in unanimity of attack or evenness of tone, the playing was on a high level. The overall tone was an attraction in itself, built on a very large string section (including 10 basses), while the orchestraM-Fs hair-trigger responsiveness to MaazelM-Fs guidance commanded admiration.

The large violin section articulated almost everything, even the skittering notes in RossiniM-Fs Overture to La gazza ladra, with extraordinary finesse. The lower strings did richly shaded work, as in the Intermezzo from PucciniM-Fs Manon Lescaut.

Startling, solid walls of sound emerged as easily from the brass section as subtle phrases; the horns did particularly impressive work in the ballet music from VerdiM-Fs Otello.

In RespighiM-Fs evocative travelogues M-y The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome M-y each part of the orchestra, from the prismatic woodwinds to the dead-on percussion, helped realize MaazelM-Fs organic approach to the music. The superbly modulated crescendo in the finale of The Pines, starting as if from deep within the earth and reaching a stunning velocity, was but one example.

Toscanini would probably have been livid at some of MaazelM-Fs interpretive choices, especially the rather spacious pacing of VerdiM-Fs Overture to La forza del destino. But much of the programM-Fs familiar music had a fresh, vital quality thanks to the way Maazel leaned into a phrase or underlined dynamic contrasts. And to realize the ravishing instrumental coloring in the Respighi scores, you couldnM-Ft ask for a more sensitive painter than this conductor.

MaazelM-Fs distinctive style and the enthusiasm of the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini should guarantee a sterling future.

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