Viola concerto takes a bow

Review

Howard Live

October 28, 2004|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

One might think that on a concert program dominated by Hector Berlioz's splashy, phantasmagoric Symphonie Fantastique and Beethoven's weighty "Coriolan" Overture, a little-known 20th-century work could get lost in the shuffle.

But when the conductor is Jason Love and the ensemble doing the playing is his Columbia Orchestra, that assumption goes out the window. Love's musical sensibilities are steeped in the contemporary idiom, and the most memorable moments of his tenure here have been achieved in works by Igor Stravinsky, Silvestre Revueltas, John Adams and other 20th-century composers.

That trend continued Saturday evening when Love played host to Baltimore Symphony Orchestra violist Peter Minkler in Die Schwanendreher (literally the Swan Turner), Paul Hindemith's viola concerto based on the folk melodies of medieval Germany.

Hindemith, a German Jew who escaped the ravages of Hitler's Third Reich by emigrating to the United States, where he taught at Yale and continued to compose, was a musical jack-of-all trades who played several instruments well. But his main love was the viola, and in 1935, just before his departure from Germany, he composed this work for viola and orchestra. Scored for an unlikely combination of instruments (four cellos, three horns, two bassoons, a trumpet, trombone and harp with no violins or violas in the ensemble), Die Schwandreher is full of diverse elements - crisp marches and idyllic melodies mixing with interludes of exultation, even as feelings of nostalgia and loss lurk beneath.

The key to it all is intimacy. There must be chamber-scale responsiveness from the ensemble while the viola, playing the role of a medieval minstrel, weaves its way in and out of the orchestra textures, sometimes dominating, sometimes embroidering the melodic handiwork originated by others.

These emotional crosscurrents were presented in absorbing fashion by the soloist who has been a member of the BSO for about two decades. His singing tone, sure sense of phrasing and collegial manner suited Hindemith's handiwork to a tee. When it was time to take center stage (joined by the harp) in the melancholic interlude that introduces the second movement, the viola sang out with bardic intensity. And when the score demanded that it dart in and out of the ensemble in the Swan Turner Variations in III, the entrances and exits were elegantly managed.

The performance, I dare say, won Hindemith, his concerto, and maybe the viola itself some fans.

Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique is a tall, tall order for a community orchestra, as the French romantic composer made demands on 19th-century orchestras that are anything but a picnic here in the 21st. Indeed, Berlioz insists on the same brand of nonstop virtuosity for the orchestra that Frederic Chopin (another arch-romantic) demands from pianists. So a note-perfect performance, then, was simply not in the cards.

What was most impressive, though, was the sense of atmosphere established in the vivid scenes Berlioz crafted to depict the famous idee fixe, describing the desire of a love-struck hero for his beloved, was announced most gracefully in Movement I, while strings and harps combined to introduce Movement II's masked ball with true elegance.

Columbia's trumpets made the famous "March to the Scaffold" a suitably raucous affair and kudos to the clarinets for ushering in "The Witches' Sabbath" in such macabre fashion.

But even lovely English horn playing could not save the pastoral scene (Movement III) which is, to my ears, a crushing bore; the least fantastic part of Symphonie Fantastique.

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