Monday, February 9, 2009

Music review: Fresh programming enlivens Boca Symphonia concert

Boca Symphonia principal conductor Alexander Platt.

By Greg Stepanich

BOCA RATON -- At a time when the sound of belts tightening across the land would seem to invite cultural groups to play it safe, you have to hand it to the Boca Raton Symphonia for putting art first.

On Sunday afternoon at St. Andrew's School, the chamber orchestra that's now in its fourth season of concerts offered a fine work by a contemporary American composer as well as a rarely heard piece by Tchaikovsky on a program that also featured two briefer favorites. It was an impressive afternoon of music, intelligently conceived and expertly played, and while the level of orchestral finish was not consistently high, the freshness of the programming more than compensated for it.

Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy was the soloist with the orchestra and conductor Alexander Platt in a setting by American composer Libby Larsen of six poems from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets From the Portuguese. Larsen is currently in the middle of a two-year residency at Florida Atlantic University, and is composing several new works for the college's ensembles that will premiere in April.

Platt called the sonnet settings -- written 20 years ago for the late Arleen Auger -- Larsen's "masterpiece," and the work has all the more distinctive features of Larsen's aesthetic: a sharp ear for good orchestral color, respect for English prosody in setting words to music, and a mild harmonic framework that gives her music a sense of geniality. Larsen knows how to frame a poem and make it come alive as a song, and that might be the most attractive thing about these pieces. Here, the singer's voice isn't simply one among many other instruments, as it often is contemporary classical music, but a graceful being apart.

Lundy's voice is creamy, pleasant and rather intimate, and well-suited for these pieces, which are not vocally extravagant. On a line such as The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years (from the first song, I Once Thought How Theocritus Had Sung), which Larsen sets to a bluesy melodic line, Lundy conveyed a sense of matter-of-fact confession quite well, an effect aided by her good diction.

There's something of the flavor of Debussy in this score (particularly the second song, My Letters) and even more of Samuel Barber (especially the sixth song, How Do I Love Thee?). The orchestra was sensitive to Lundy throughout, but not averse to exploring the more richly orchestrated pages, giving the cycle flashes of instrumental vividness as the poems explored Barrett Browning's growing confidence in her love.

This season's Boca Symphonia concerts have as their theme the work and influence of Tchaikovsky, and for the second half of Sunday's program, Platt led the group in the First Orchestral Suite (in D minor, Op. 43), which as he rightly said is the most obscure of that composer's four suites. Platt switched the order of movements three and five, placing the Scherzo before the Miniature March instead of after it.

There is some very fine music in this suite, written in 1878, and its neglect is hard to fathom. The large audience at the Roberts Theater loudly acclaimed it, and a repeat of the fourth-movement march served as the afternoon's encore.

There were some rough spots here and there, such as the intonation of the brasses with the bassoon in the A major chord just before the violins offer the main theme of the introduction, but overall there was a good deal to admire, including the lovely lightness of the march, the exciting texture of the strings in the busy first-movement fugue (Tchaikovsky was a theory teacher early on), and the intensity with which the orchestra played the long lines of the Intermezzo.

The concert opened with the Hebrides Overture (or Fingal's Cave, Op. 26) of Mendelssohn, an orchestral perennial that got a very swift, almost too-pushed performance as Platt sought to stress the firepower rather than the Victorian probity of the composer. And this was a reading with an abundance of energy.

Next came Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess, which had some horn slippage at the higher end of the melody, but in general came across as luminous and deeply felt. The piece, and the concert, were dedicated to the memory of the bassoonist Arthur Weisberg, a veteran educator, performer and composer who died last month of pancreatic cancer at 77.

A mention should also be made about Platt's approach when he talks to the audience. He is a fascinating speaker whose monologues on the music to be made have a kind of dinner-party stream of consciousness that give good insight not just into what the music will be all about, but about how Platt approaches it.

On Sunday, he discussed his listening habits (all 11 discs of the complete Mendelssohn choral music, beautiful stuff that is never played) and displayed his grasp of musical and intellectual history (Wagner's anti-Semitic writings, Tchaikovsky's post-marriage emotional crisis), but mostly gave the impression of a man deeply committed to his orchestra and his art.

Platt made an impulsive parting shot after the encore, upbraiding the Miami City Ballet, which earlier this year switched to taped rather than live music in a cost-cutting measure, for using the Cleveland Orchestra as its accompanist during that group's Miami residency. Shame on them, he said, because it's the players of this orchestra, the Boca Symphonia, they should be using.

It was a patriotic call to solidarity that raised a cheer from the audience.

For its next concert Sunday, March 22, the Boca Symphonia and Platt will be joined by American pianist Lydia Artymiw for the Piano Concerto No. 21 (in C, K. 467), of Mozart. Also on the program are two symphonies: Beethoven’s First (in C, Op. 21) and Shostakovich’s Ninth (in E-flat, Op. 70). 2:30 pm, Roberts Theater, St. Andrew's School, Boca Raton. Tickets: $42-$53. Call 376-3848, 888-426-5577, or visit the orchestra's Website.

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