Monday, January 12, 2009

Music review: Boca Symphonia persuasive in Britten, Dvorak, Mendelssohn

Pianist Frederic Chiu.

By Greg Stepanich

BOCA RATON -- When an orchestra wants to introduce its audience to unfamiliar repertoire, the time-honored pattern is usually to offer only one such piece and leave the rest to the workhorses.

But on Sunday afternoon at the Roberts Theater, the Boca Raton Symphonia made the case for two overlooked, rarely played works, and those arguments were more than persuasive. That these overdue introductions occurred on a program that also featured a charismatic piano soloist made the concert satisfying on a number of levels from the visceral to the rigorously intellectual.

That soloist was the fine American pianist Frederic Chiu, who appeared in what conductor Alexander Platt called the "eternally youthful" First Piano Concerto (in G minor, Op. 25) of Felix Mendelssohn, whose birth bicentenary is being widely celebrated this year. In Chiu's reading, this is a lightly framed work, but by no means lightweight; it is, rather, lean and muscular.

Chiu has a big sound and commanding technique to which he brought a high level of seriousness about Mendelssohn's writing. The transitional solo that connects the first and second movements, for instance, was slow, dark and mournfully ruminative, a bit of somber reflection that did a beautiful job of setting up the opening theme of the Andante, played radiantly here by the Boca Symphonia cellos.

The six-note secondary theme of the first movement (it returns briefly in the finale) also received the poetic treatment, as Chiu gave it a special level of intensity and feeling that sharpened the contrast with the concerto's frequent top-of-the-register sparkle, making it sound bubbly thereby, and not showy. The Boca orchestra and Platt were fine partners with Chiu (save for an out-of-tune horn in the slow movement), accompanying with sensitivity and a palpable shared sense of fun.

Chiu played a solo encore, the Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14, of Mendelssohn, a substantial work written a year earlier than the concerto and containing much the same mix of Romantic yearning and virtuosic frippery. The solo format allowed the audience to hear very clearly Chiu's excellent sense of control as he tossed off the Rondo's main theme, one of those bits of elfin music that came so naturally to the composer and which have helped define him.

Here, too, Chiu made the contrast between the fluttering main theme and the more ardent secondary theme very dramatic, but he overdid it a bit, giving Mendelssohn's carefully structured work the sound of pieces that were intriguing in themselves but didn't belong together in the same work. Still, Chiu produced an impressive display of pianism overall, and one that added a good deal of power to music that often gets played with more restraint.

The concert opened with a luminous, revelatory performance of one of the last works of Benjamin Britten, the Suite on English Folk Tunes (A Time There Was), Op. 90. Written in 1974, this five-movement orchestral work demonstrates Britten's exceptional ear for instrumental color. That included the delicate harp-and-strings exchanges in the second song, A Bitter Withy, and the tense flashiness of the fiddling in the fourth piece, Hunt the Squirrel, all played with admirable precision by the orchestra.

Perhaps best of all was the fifth song, Lord Melbourne, which featured lovely English horn playing and first-rate string ensemble, a combination that made the music sound truly valedictory. Platt held up the score for audience applause afterward, a welcome salute to a fine work that the Boca Symphonia played with definitive style and finish.

The second half was devoted to a single work, the Fifth Symphony (in F, Op. 76), of Dvorak, an infrequently heard piece that very well might have been getting a local concert premiere Sunday. The chamber size of the Boca orchestra was no impediment to Dvorak's writing, which nonetheless requires tip-top woodwind and horn playing to make its best effect.

All of the characteristics of Dvorak's mature style are in evidence here, such as his gift for sunny melody, vivid orchestration and a sense of perpetual vigor, even in his moodier moments. The Boca Symphonia gave quite a good account of the symphony, digging into its high spirits and dance-like energy with full commitment.

I found the second movement most compelling, with the strings bringing across the melancholy main theme with rich, full tone. Platt and the orchestra also handled the delicacy of the secondary theme and the tricky transition to the scherzo neatly and convincingly. The opening movement, for its part, was sinewy and fresh, another example of the benefit of having a smaller orchestra playing the piece.

Ensemble was something of a problem in the finale, with some disagreement early on about the right tempo, and things didn't appear to right themselves until later on in the movement. That marred the ending somewhat because the material Dvorak provides isn't the strongest he ever wrote, and it needs ensemble to be just right in order to come off at its best. But the Fifth is a good, entertaining work, and Platt and the Boca Symphonia deserve credit for bringing it out of the library and into the concert hall where it belongs.

The concert closed with a Czech encore, the Polka from Bedrich Smetana's score for his opera The Bartered Bride. Perhaps because of the force the group brought to the Dvorak, this was a slightly heavy-handed rendition of this charming music, but it nevertheless made a joyful sendoff for a concert that was full of unexpected, and welcome, treasure.

The music of contemporary American composer Libby Larsen, who's in the middle of a two-year residency at Florida Atlantic University, will be featured on the next Boca Symphonia concert, set for 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8. Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy will sing Larsen's song cycle based on Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from The Portuguese on a concert that also features the First Orchestral Suite (in D minor, Op. 43) of Tchaikovsky, the Hebrides Overture of Mendelssohn, and Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess. The orchestra also will launch its children's concert series on the Saturday before the concert at 3 p.m. All concerts are at the Roberts Theater, St. Andrew's School, Boca Raton. Tickets: $42-$53. For more information, call 376-3848 or visit www.bocasymphonia.org.

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