ASO does justice to Dvorak's work

Maestro takes direct approach in one of many concerts

November 16, 2007|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special to The Sun

The most surprising thing about last weekend's concerts by the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, the second pair of subscription offerings this season, was the written program's assertion that these were the first-ever ASO performances of Antonin Dvorak's 7th Symphony.

Dvorak is one of those "second line" composers who wasn't second line in the least. Melody flowed from his pen in inexhaustible quantities as he composed in an expansive, emotionally compelling voice inspired by the Czech idioms that infused his works. His great D-minor Symphony inspired by the style of Johannes Brahms is one of the great works of the classical canon. So, bravo to Maestro Jose-Luis Novo for bringing it to Annapolis at last, and for leading his players through an exciting traversal of the score.

Novo took a taut, direct approach, snapping off Dvorak's dark, brooding passages in Movement I with admirable intensity. In keeping with this approach, the orchestra - especially the strings - sounded edgier than usual, which added to the excitement even if it at times diminished the contrasts that occur when Dvorak switches on the charm. I could have imagined a riper, more exultant sound in the concluding Allegro, for example. Still, we were given a graceful set of Czech dances when the occasion called for it in Movement III, so there was elegance when it counted.

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu, the 1997 Van Cliburn competition winner, returned to Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts for his third appearance with the ASO. This time, it was to play that war horse of war horses, Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto, the one that opens with the most recognizable downward arpeggio in all of music.

Nakamatsu is a player of taste and refinement who is thoroughly at home in the emotionally charged Romantic repertoire, so we were treated to a bravura reading that never lost its elegance. The piano is that oddest of combinations - a percussion instrument that can sing like an angel - and Nakamatsu knows how to make a song take flight. The gentle melodies of the Adagio were spun out with haunting simplicity. And when it was time to bring the work to a ringing conclusion, Nakamatsu, aided by a handsome-sounding Steinway, was more than equal to the task. (Forget that one is jazz-inspired and one isn't: Grieg's final bars had to have been in George Gershwin's head when he crafted the conclusion to Rhapsody in Blue.)

These concerts provided listeners the opportunity to size up the first of four new works commissioned to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the City of Annapolis' royal charter. This time, the spotlight was on Dan Visconti, a young composer out of Yale and the Cleveland Institute whose works have been performed by such first-class ensembles as the Cleveland Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Kronos Quartet.

The Breadth of Breaking Waves, a five-minute series of musical wave patterns, lapped and receded pleasantly but uneventfully. I liked what I heard. More would have been nice.

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