ASO takes crowd on magical ride


November 22, 2006|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special to The Sun

With its swirling instrumental colors and irresistible surges of melody spinning out musical "Tales of the Arabian Nights," Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade is one of the most exotic, best-loved orchestral showpieces of them all.

True to the work's pictorial elements, the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's exotic masterwork Saturday evening provided an interesting portrait of where the ASO stands in Year Two of conductor Jose-Luis Novo's tenure.

Just a few years back, the local orchestra played Scheherazade under the baton of Novo's predecessor, Leslie B. Dunner, and (again in the spirit of "Arabian Nights") there's a tale or two to be told in the comparison.

Dunner is a conductor-cum-choreographer, a leader who imparts buoyancy and an almost balletic sense of lift to just about everything he does. (Not for nothing did he rebound after Annapolis to become the music director of the Joffrey Ballet.)

Where Dunner's Scheherazade unfolded in carefully crafted bursts of kinesthetic energy (you could almost see dancers moving about the stage of Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts), Novo is a different customer altogether. With him, Princess Scheherazade's story lines stretch and surge more extensively as their melodic tension builds. The result is an expansive, decidedly non-episodic vision of Scheherazade that packs a wallop, assuming an orchestra has the tonal resources to pull it off.

From what we heard last weekend, those resources are in place, for the orchestra sounds better than ever - though a few more fiddles wouldn't hurt. Some of the credit must be extended to Dunner for his superb hires, who continue to pay rich dividends, in the woodwind section especially.

But Novo's ear for talent already has taken the orchestra to higher artistic ground, particularly where the clarinets and strings are concerned. And nowhere is growth more evident than in the concertmaster's chair, where Novo has the best lead violinist the orchestra has ever had in the person of Mateusz Wolski.

Scheherazade is practically a concerto, with the violin acting as the sensuous voice of the storytelling princess. With his silky tone and aristocratic phrasing, the concertmaster, a recent graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, gave us a luxurious magic carpet ride that fit Rimsky-Korsakov's exoticism to a T.

Novo and company served as exemplary hosts to percussionist Svet Stoyanov, who was all over the stage playing pitched drums, vibraphones, marimbas, cymbals, water gongs, xylophones, bells and bass drums in the viscerally exciting Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra by Joseph Schwanter of the Yale School of Music.

The concerto is a striking (pun intended) three-movement work that exploits the wonderfully divergent sonorities of the percussion family, all of which came alive during Stoyanov's bristling assault on the score.

An orchestral miniature placed between works designed for maximal impact is going to sound smaller and more innocuous than intended. That is exactly what happened to Maurice Ravel's short, gentle Mother Goose Suite, which was overshadowed by the drumming that came before and the glamorous colors that followed.

With playing that sounded detached and a bit veiled, nothing much happened, artistically or emotionally.

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