ASO music overcomes touch of hype


October 05, 2007|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special to the Sun

I confess that I walked into the opening concert of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's 47th season Friday night with my eyes rolling just a bit over management's decision to bill the evening as "Battle of the Titans."

The titans, I suppose, were Beethoven, Brahms and Bartok, who are musical giants and whose works were up for discussion by director Jose-Luis Novo and his players. But a battle? Who would be fighting? Over what?

Classical music is hurting. We all know that, and the ASO needs to sell tickets. But to conjure up images of Beethoven, Brahms and Bartok as thonged Spartans ready to do each other injury is infantile. This is the sort of pop culture hype that the orchestra's truest supporters go to great lengths to avoid.

But the eye rolling stopped with Novo's galvanic downbeat to Beethoven's Coriolan overture and never started up again. This program, which also included Brahms' Violin Concerto and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, proved to be one of the best efforts of the Spanish conductor's tenure with the orchestra. Everything clicked in this program, which the ASO repeated Sunday as the season opener for the Performing Arts Association of Linthicum.

With the American violinist Soovin Kim joining him on the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts stage for Brahms, Novo turned in the best accompanying job since he's been here. Many contemporary conductors and violinists have been on something of a crusade to see how slowly and lugubriously they can play the first movement of the concerto. The more taffy they can pull as they stretch those expansive Brahmsian phrases to their breaking point, the better they like it.

Novo and Kim would have none of that. Their Brahms was classically scaled; taut and energetic, but with no lack of poetry when it was time to pull back and smell the gardens full of roses Brahms bequeathed us in his score.

The violinist, a product of the Cleveland and Curtis (Philadelphia) institutes, is another young fiddler on the rise and an exceptional talent. I thought his tone a bit forced in some of the bravura passages of the outer movements, but there's no question that he feels the work deeply and has affecting things to say about it.

Kim recently recorded Niccolo Paganini's 24 Caprices, which I plan to buy as soon as I can find a classical record store with enough inventory to sell me one.

What an immense joy to hear Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra played with such a sense of discovery. Bartok was a master at placing instrumental voices in the solo spotlight. What's needed, then, are eloquent soloists; and those the local orchestra has in abundance, especially in its woodwind and brass sections. The Play of Pairs (Giuoco delle coppie) Bartok's piquant second movement and a special favorite of mine, was a delight.

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