Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Music review: ACO closes season with cabinet of curiosities

Atlantic Classical Orchestra director Stewart Robertson.

By Sharon McDaniel

STUART – The Atlantic Classical Orchestra is an encouraging anomaly. It’s a healthy organization, with a devoted following of Treasure Coast residents. Artistically, it has found its niche in music off the beaten path, and you can just about chart the steady yearly upswing in its technical assurance and refinement.

Tuesday evening, the professional chamber orchestra closed its 19th season with the third and final performance of Program IV. Even a blustery, rainy night didn’t keep most Lyric Theatre patrons from their seats. And this for a program half-filled with unfamiliar names – MacKenzie and McCabe, for example – a frequent cause for consternation for more timid music lovers.

But then, the ACO and more specifically, music director Stewart Robertson, now in his fourth season, have made a specialty of evenings built around rare works, unknown composers, and even diamonds in the rough by famous names. And despite modest means, the ACO has hosted an above-average guest list of international stars again this year, including pianists Christopher O’Riley and Stewart Goodyear.

Cellist Ian Maksin isn’t in that category yet, but he has certainly set regional stages ablaze for years. Although better-known for his remarkable chamber-music appearances, Maksin, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, danced through Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme (Op. 33) as ACO guest soloist.

What’s not to like? A warm, silky tone; an excellent technique at ease in gusto and finesse; a plethora of personal ideas to stimulate the ear; an artist who clearly enjoyed his work.

Among minor intonations quibbles, the 33-year-old Maksin overshot a few high notes. But he stressed musical ideas above all for a Tchaikovsky that was vibrant and captivating. He paced it like a fine storyteller, and like a great novella, it ended much too soon. Maksin now lives in Chicago. But he is welcome to regale us with stories any time.

The program’s centerpiece was by a contemporary of Tchaikovsky, the Frenchman Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). The ACO programmed Saint-Saens' Second Symphony, a youthful work from 1859 that scarcely foreshadows its much more famous later sibling, the so-called Organ Symphony (Symphony No. 3) of 1886.

It’s worth hearing as a point of comparison, yet it begs the question: Why focus so much energy on music so removed from the standard repertoire that few in the audience – or the orchestra -- will hear it again? Even for a group committed to the rare and new, this final program was conspicuous for the pileup of curiosities – add short works by 19th-century romanticist Alexander MacKenzie, and contemporary British composer John McCabe – far more than any other ACO program this season.

The Second Symphony, by the 24-year-old Saint-Saens, is a reminder of the influences that crossed the composer’s long life: He was born when the deaths of Beethoven (1827) and Schubert (1828) were still recent memory. Yet he lived to attend the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913), which he disliked.

If the Second isn’t top drawer, the ACO was certainly an advocate for its bright romanticism, heightening the skillful orchestral coloring. Not all the inner details and doodads had their day in the sun. But Robertson dramatized the bold rhythms, ever-cycling melodies and extensive tip of the hat to Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, composed two decades earlier.

Robertson, honoring his Scottish heritage, imported Benedictus, Op. 37, No. 3, by Edinburgh-born Sir Alexander MacKenzie (1847–1935). The romantic adagio, just seven-minutes long, is an almost unflagging sweep of melody, especially well unfurled by the ACO’s strings.

All ACO sections got a workout in John McCabe’s dynamic, 13-minute Concerto for Chamber Orchestra (1962). An attractive, modern piece, it alternates dark, foggy, atmospheric passages with sharply etched moments of driving rhythms, dissonance and bold accents -- even snippets of jazz.

A fine ACO mini-string ensemble, with concertmaster Scott Flavin as soloist, contrasted beautifully with the fuller orchestral texture. And skillful wind-band writing was just the thing to spotlight the excellent woodwind and brass players.

The Atlantic Classical Orchestra opens its 20th anniversary season on Jan. 7-8, 2010, with concerts in Vero Beach at the Waxlax Center for the Performing Arts, and in Stuart at the Lyric Theatre. For details, call (866) 310-7521, e-mail or visit

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