For the most part, ASO's classical love songs hit the mark


February 23, 2007|By PHIL GREENFIELD | PHIL GREENFIELD,Special to The Sun

Last week's winter storm severely disrupted the rehearsal schedule of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, whose 70-odd members had to maneuver slick roads and work through power outages.

Maestro Jos?-Luis Novo and his plucky orchestra took the stage at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts as scheduled Friday to present works by Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, Maurice Ravel, Felix Mendelssohn and Leonard Bernstein in a Valentine's Day-inspired program subtitled "All About Love."

But while love may be blind, it is not deaf. It quickly became evident that the diminished rehearsal time had taken a toll on the orchestra's level of preparation.

Heard at its best, the "Prelude and Liebestod (Love-Death)" from Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde seethes with emotion as it soars to ecstatic heights of rapturous longing.

Friday, however, it remained full of carefully subdued playing that sounded as if the players were trying to avoid mistakes that, alas, were made anyway. One cellist, for example, had trouble counting subdivided beats in the opening phrases.

Also less than impressive was a so-so Mendelssohn A Midsummer Night's Dream overture full of bloopers from the ASO's normally reliable horn section.

A set of symphonic dances from West Side Story also failed to ignite until the "The Dance at the Gym (Mambo!)" tapped into the kinetic energy of Bernstein's marvelous score and sent it flying out into the audience.

What hit home was Mahler's song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ("Songs of a Wayfarer") as performed by baritone Christopheren Nomura.

Sporting luxurious tone and a vocal range that takes him from powerful notes in the lower register to a drop-dead gorgeous voice up high, Nomura entered the spirit of these remarkable songs with as open a heart as one could wish for on Valentine's Day weekend.

In the opening song, Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht ("When My Sweetheart Has Her Wedding"), he explored every emotional dimension of Mahler's halting testimony to love, loss and resignation as the lover contemplating his beloved's marriage to someone else.

Mahler was a composer (and a man) of tremendous extremes. Nomura conveyed this in Ging heut' morgens ubers Feld ("I Went Out This Morning Through the Fields"), where gentle joy mingles with wistful sadness, then morphs into the rage of Ich hab'ein gluhend Messer ("I Have a Red-Hot Knife"), which articulates the torment of betrayal with scorching empathy.

And it would be hard to imagine a sweeter, more romantic surrender to the joys and sorrows of life than Die zwei blauen Augen ("The Two Blue Eyes"), which Nomura sang with aching beauty as the cycle ended.

Novo and his players played wonderful hosts to their visitor, following him with complete conviction through an expressive score replete with interpretive challenges.

They also hit the mark as they joined Nomura in Ravel's three Don Quixote songs addressed to the knight's love, Dulcinea.

The songs run the gamut from rapt spirituality to drunken abandon; and Novo, his soloist, and his players brought all of it home with an irresistible charm no one could resist, certainly not in the shadow of Valentine's Day.

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