Saturday, March 14, 2009

Music review: Bell stands out on mixed-bag Boca fest program

Conductor Alondra de la Parra.

By Greg Stepanich

BOCA RATON -- Had there been any doubt that the Russian National Orchestra is one of the major stars of this year's Festival of the Arts Boca, Friday night's concert at the 11-day music-and-literature gathering would have dispelled it.

Given an unusual program with three soloists and widely varied music from Third Republic French to late Romantic Czech as well as contemporary American, plus a conductor with a very different approach than its director, and it was crucial that the Moscow-based orchestra be able to hold everything together. And it did, but it wasn't able on its own to make the evening more than intermittently satisfying.

The greatest boost of star-power wattage, and the most exemplary playing, came with the cameo appearance just after intermission of the violinist Joshua Bell, who received thunderous acclaim as he walked onto stage and even more as he tried to leave it 15 minutes later. Bell, a featured artist in the 2008 festival, was a last-minute addition to the program this year, but in his brief cameo demonstrated why he is one of the world's leading violinists.

The Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28, of Camille Saint-Saens, is exactly the sort of technically rigorous but exceptionally tasteful showboat piece for which this composer is celebrated, and it takes a player like Bell to give it its due. His tone was big and commanding, his mastery of virtuoso display thrilling, and his ability to sound even the quietest, fastest note without skimming over it awe-inspiring.

He even assisted conductor Alondra de la Parra and the RNO by leading them all into the Rondo courtesy of the forceful way he played the four descending trills that set it up. The Rondo was lightness and wit itself in Bell's hands, and the all-out athleticism of the closing bars were enlivened by his nailing of the riffs that culminate in the stratosphere section of the E string.

Cellist Nina Kotova was the soloist in another Saint-Saens work, the First Cello Concerto, Op. 33, which like the Introduction and Rondo is in A minor. This one-movement work's opening theme is dominated by a rush of triplets, and when it came time for the orchestra to play them after the dramatic bars in which the cello sings it out, de la Parra seemed more interested in the general shape of the theme than its pulse. That gave the music a sort of tumbling quality that was much too loose, making it hard to discern the beat and leaving it to shapeless for the accented three note end of the theme to have the right kind of contrast.

Kotova is a fine technician, and demonstrated that amply throughout, but her playing of the dancing double-stops early on in this part of the concerto were unpleasantly harsh -- though that might have been the result of what looked like a nearby microphone. She was far more persuasive in the slow-movement portion of the work, when she could indulge her beautiful, noble tone quality, which stood out elegantly against the orchestra's delicate playing.

The third soloist Friday night was the young Venezeulan pianist Ana Karina Alamo, who played the Rhapsody in Blue of George Gershwin. The RNO clarinetist had what sounded like a wonderful time playing the opening solos, and the whole performance had an agreeable sort of buck-and-wing if not exactly swing, with extra percussion in one of the orchestral interludes and plenty of ardor from the strings in the famous ballad theme.

Alamo also took some liberties, kinking up the rhythms here and there in some of the solo moments, but while she has good fingers and clearly absorbs herself in the music, her performance had a kind of stiffness in the jazzier bits, and a languor in the slower ones, that made what is already an episodic patchwork of a piece even more so. She didn't sound as though she had a strong enough conception of the Rhapsody to make it her own; it needs more profile and bravura, and a better sense of how to make use of moments such as the sudden Agitato that follows the ballad so that they make dramatic sense.

The concert opened with another bits-and-pieces composition, the Plump Jack Overture of Gordon Getty, famous also for his philanthropy and his oil heritage. This piece, which opens Getty's 1984 opera about Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff, has moments of musical distinction here and there, such as a winking kind of motif in the violins and later on, a moment that starts out with tuneful promise in the cellos. But overall the music is far too episodic to make any sort of narrative impression; it stops and starts without any feeling for what Nadia Boulanger used to call "the big line," and so frustrates rather than entertains.

The concert closed with the durable Ninth Symphony of Antonin Dvorak (in E minor, Op. 95), that the composer, then resident in New York and Iowa, titled From the New World. Again, de la Parra's approach to length of phrase rather than a stricter sense of time dealt a shaky blow to the music.

In the celebrated Largo, for example, with its English horn solo that later was transformed by a Dvorak student into a faux spiritual, de la Parra seemed unwilling to let each note have its full value, and kept pushing the music forward in a way that didn't allow it to breathe. Without that, the music lacked the spaciousness that is one of its most attractive features.

Similarly, in the Scherzo, the movement opened with a headlong, exciting tempo, but the pulse was unclear when it came time for the contrasting theme and the bubbly trio section, and so these three different musical moments sort of ran together. Dvorak's writing here is not his finest (the Eighth Symphony is on the whole a much better piece), but it's saved by his endlessly lyric talent, and those moments need to sound as much as possible as though they are growing organically out of the rest of the movement. Without a steady beat and clear structural direction, that isn't going to happen.

On the positive side, de la Parra chose good tempos in general for the four movements, and the RNO played with glorious color and impressive power. Still, it would have been a more fulfilling listening experience had all that talent been reined in more tightly in the service of the music.

The Festival of the Arts Boca 2009 closes Sunday night with a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven (in D minor, Op. 125), featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman at the podium with the Master Chorale of Florida and soloists Layla Claire, Kelley O'Conner, John Tessier and Kyle Ketelsen. Also on the program, which begins at 7 p.m. under the tent at the Count de Hoernle Amphitheater in Mizner Park, is more Beethoven: the overture from his incidental music (Op. 84) to Goethe's drama Egmont. Tickets: $75-$250. For more information, call 866-571-2787 or visit www.festivaloftheartsboca.org.

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