I've never warmed to the recent trend of appending literary subtitles to symphonic concerts. "Music of the Spirit"?
What serious work of art does not have a spiritual dimension, for heaven's sake? "Fate in Music"? Bah! Great music expresses far more than any New Age-friendly epithet could possibly suggest, so why bother?
Still, I'll admit I was taken with the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's designation of last weekend's concerts at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts as "Musical Testaments." One might wonder why the 2nd Symphony of Johannes Brahms is any more or less a testimonial than his 1st, 3rd or 4th symphonies (or his Lullaby, for that matter); otherwise the subtitle made sense. Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen for string orchestra is a valedictory set of musical revelations crafted by an 81-year-old composer looking back at his extraordinary musical life amid the ashes of Hitler's Third Reich. (A fate that crass opportunists like Herr Strauss helped bring about, by the way.)
So too was the Viola Concerto of Bela Bartok part of that composer's last artistic will and testament. Commissioned in January 1945 by Wiliam Primrose, the 20th century's most illustrious violist, the concerto lay unfinished at the time of Bartok's death in the fall of that same year and was later completed by the composer's friend and colleague, Tibor Serly.
Sadly, the "Testament" theme took on even greater significance last weekend as the ASO said goodbye to one of its members, violinist Theophanis Dymiotis, who was killed in an automobile accident outside Chestertown on March 10. With a glowing, deeply felt performance of the "Nimrod" interlude from Sir Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations played as Mr. Dymiotis' chair was left vacant on the stage. Maestro Jose-Luis Novo and the orchestra demonstrated that music does bear witness to life with power and eloquence.
Novo and his players added to the poignancy of the evening with playing as distinguished as any enjoyed during the maestro's brief tenure in Annapolis.
Especially impressive was the Metamorphosen, Strauss' dense, discursive commentary on nostalgia and loss as only an old man can feel them. What stood out last Friday was the aristocratic flair of the playing from concertmaster Mateusz Wolski, principal cellist Kerena Moeller and their 21 colleagues, who allowed the intensity of the work to emerge with a stoic dignity that made the emotions all the more affecting. It took guts to begin a concert with such staunch, uncompromising fare, but they pulled it off.
Back in the 1990s, the ASO booked several concertmasters of prominent American orchestras to perform major concertos at Maryland Hall. Most of them fizzled in the solo spotlight, as though the collegiality that informed their playing "back home" kept them from seizing the stage in the grand manner.
That was not the case with Roberto Diaz, formerly one of the world's premiere orchestral violists, who now runs the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. However deferential he may have been as a section leader in Washington and Philadelphia, there was no mistaking the bravura with which he stepped into the solo role to take his audience on a white-knuckle ride through the Bartok-Serly score. From the heartbreakingly beautiful solo entrances emanating out of the orchestral textures in II to the folk dancing in III, Diaz gave us a blistering account to remember.
Novo's Brahms proved likable, though less memorable than his Bartok and Strauss. Moods in the interior movements came off vividly; impassioned in II and joyously fizzy in III. The finale seemed curiously subdued until the trumpets and horns ended the D major symphony in its requisite blaze of glory.