Truth be told, I'm not a pops concert kind of guy. But when I heard that Maestro Jose-Luis Novo and his Annapolis Symphony Orchestra were taking a musical tour of Italy last Saturday evening in a program titled "Viva Italia!," I was interested for two reasons.
First, the conductor, now in his second season with the orchestra, showed us last Christmas that he takes pops concerts as occasions to have fun with great music, not to woo cultural illiterates into the concert hall with schlock from popular culture masquerading as symphonic fare.
That trend continued Saturday in a wonderful program highlighted by works of Vivaldi, Verdi, Rossini, Puccini and Mendelssohn.
Second, "Viva Italia!" afforded the opportunity to hear ASO concertmaster Mateusz Wolski in his first solo appearance with the orchestra.
A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music where he studied with Glen Dicterow, the distinguished concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, Wolski is the head of the ASO string section. The solo bits he has delivered thus far have been superb (his contributions last November to Rimsky-Korsakoff's Scheherazade were spectacular); so I was curious to hear him in the Spring concerto from Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons.
Spring was indeed lovely this year, if a tad short of baroque sparkle and bounce on the orchestral front. Wolski's tone is handsome and was complemented nicely by associate concertmaster Najin Kim and principal secondviolinist Christian Tremblay, who helped evoke the chirping birds that make La Primavera such a perennial favorite.
The orchestral accompaniment was robust -- maybe even a bit too robust. How nice it would have been to have heard a lighter, sleeker string tone with a harpsichord chugging along underneath the orchestral texture to lend some spice to the season.
The evening's finest moments came in Rossini's fizzy overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers and in Verdi's bustling Nabucco overture, which contains the melody of "Va, pensiero," also known as The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.
This song, which became the de facto national anthem of Italy as it sought independence in the 19th century, may be the most stirring tune Verdi ever wrote. It elicits squeals of recognition whenever it is played, and Saturday was no exception.
Novo also gave us a pair of movements from Ottorino Respighi's Gli Uccelli (The Birds), which really took flight. We were also treated to four zippy selections from Benjamin Britten's Soirees Musicales, which is based on the music of Respighi; Pierro Mascagni's Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, and a gorgeous excerpt from Ennio Marricone's film score, The Mission, with oboist Amanda Jury.
Of the orchestral works, only the final movement of Felix Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony remained earthbound, as gummy articulation from the strings kept the Tarantella from kicking up its heels.
Also less than stellar were the opera excerpts provided by tenor Daniel Snyder and soprano Eun-Hee Kim. Snyder's Una Furtiva Lagrima from Gaetano Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore was delivered carefully, without much ring to the tone or lilt to the phrases.
The soprano found some drama in her Un bel di from Puccini's Madama Butterfly, but she experienced a few pitch problems along the way. In addition, both sang tethered to the score, which is strange because these arias are standard.The pair was at their best in the encore they delivered -- Andrea Bocelli's Time to Say Goodbye. It was a pops concert after all.