Monday, April 20, 2009

Music review: Boca Symphonia, soloist do contemporary American concerto proud

Composer Jonathan Leshnoff.

By Greg Stepanich

BOCA RATON -- In most ways, the Boca Symphonia is an ensemble that keeps going from strength to strength, as demonstrated Sunday afternoon by its performance of an important new work of American music.

The Violin Concerto of Jonathan Leshnoff, a 35-year-old New Jersey-born composer and Peabody Institute graduate now teaching at Towson University outside Baltimore, was written in 2005, and extensively revised the following two years. Its champion has been Columbus Symphony concertmaster Charles Wetherbee, and he was the soloist Sunday at St. Andrew's School for the last concert in the Symphonia's current season.

Leshnoff's compositional aesthetic is quite tonal, and in the case of this concerto, rather darkly colored and congruent with the language of late Romanticism. Contemporary composers seem to be returning to the idea of narrative in their works, and this concerto has clearly marked sections and a overall musical direction that's easy to follow.

Leshnoff also has built his five-movement work around a basic motif (which the composer, who was present today, had trumpeter Jeffrey Kaye demonstrate) that undergoes transformations; there is in addition a second, recurring lyrical theme reminiscent of the Korngold concerto that Leshnoff takes care to give maximum breathing room.

The concerto also features an appealing, colorfully scored scherzo and a fourth movement that builds with intensity until it is capped suddenly by the arrival of the fifth movement, marked Elegy, which closes the work quietly.

As a solo vehicle its difficulties are considerable, with virtuosic challenges including tricky rhythms and rapid figurations, and its compensations are the substantial passages of slow, melancholy music. Leshnoff's inspiration for the work was a tale told by a Holocaust survivor, and those passages are intended to evoke the prayers of death camp inmates.

Wetherbee is a strong player with an intense, cutting tone that was particularly effective in the more reflective passages, and he made a most persuasive advocate for the concerto. He found an excellent partner in the Symphonia, which played beautifully throughout under the able, precise direction of guest conductor Laura Jackson.

Leshnoff has written a moving, interesting work with plenty of direct aural appeal that today's audience appeared to embrace. It is, however, not very effective as a solo vehicle, being more of a symphonic statement with violin obbligato than a concerto that shows off the violin to its best advantage.

The chief reason for that is that Leshnoff does not let the violin take his themes and dwell on them for enough time to give them impact as themes, and more importantly as themes played by a solo violin. Still, it's a strong piece of modern American classical music that received a first-class performance, and the Symphonia deserves commendation for bringing it to local audiences.

The concert opened with the Three Botticelli Pictures of Ottorino Respighi, one of the Italian composer's most attractive smaller works. The orchestra also gave this piece a standout reading, with terrific solo work from horn, oboe, bassoon and flute. But even more impressive here was the integrity of the various orchestral sections, which need the polished ensemble they manifestly have in order to bring out the right contrast Respighi has built into his beautifully hued instrumental writing.

Jackson, a former assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony, led the suite with pinpoint clarity and a fine sense of balance, dynamics, and expressive intent. This was a well-conceived interpretation, gentle even in the boisterous first section (La Primavera), and focused on introspective mood and reflection overall.

It made an ideal pairing with the Leshnoff, actually, and the same feeling was sustained in the last-minute addition to the program that opened the second half: the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun of Claude Debussy. This familiar work had everything it needed, including lovely, fat-toned flute playing, attention to instrumental color and the right pacing from Jackson for the slow build that distinguishes its second half.

After all that -- two impressionistic masterworks, and a new American piece in an accessible style that was cousin to theirs -- it was jarring to travel from that sound world to that of Beethoven, and the Fifth Symphony (in C minor, Op. 67), of all things, to boot.

The Fifth is a monument of Western civilization and a guarantee of good box office, but its style is so different than the other three pieces on the program that it could have been scheduled only for bottom-line considerations. Magnificent a piece as it is, it had no business being on this afternoon's program; it would have been far better and more sensible to hear something along the lines of, say, the Nielsen First or the Sibelius Third.

And it was the Beethoven that got the weakest performance of the day. From the very opening, Jackson and the orchestra did not agree on the precise tempo for the first movement, and while it straightened out soon after the first bars, it came apart again in the repeat. Jackson in general seemed to want to go faster than her orchestra did, and it's a credit to the players -- all of whom must have played this work many, many times -- that they were able to hold it together.

The general level of playing was quite high: that first big horn statement was powerful and right in tune, and the string sections showed again an exemplary precision of ensemble, especially the cellos and basses in the celebrated passage that opens the trio of the scherzo movement. But what was missing here was a sense of unified purpose, most glaringly in the finale, when Jackson thought it wise in the section with the piccolo-scale riff, just before the coda, to lighten things up, which drained all the forward propulsion of the symphony right out of it, making the ending sound inconclusive rather than monumental.

The Boca Symphonia's organizers have much to be proud of, having created an exceptional chamber orchestra whose most distinguishing characteristic is its fresh take on programming. Few five-concert series can have been as imaginative as this season's, with two major contemporary American works, rare Dvorak and Tchaikovsky, and marvelous pieces by Britten, Shostakovich and Stravinsky.

They have every reason to congratulate themselves, but it would be preferable in the season to come if things such as plaque and check presentations to donors and staffers, which have been a feature of every single program this year, be done at some other time than the concert itself. The audience needs to know that its support is critical for the orchestra, but it does need to have sit through 15 minutes of banter in both halves of the concert as various Symphonia functionaries attend to the business agenda.

Perhaps these things can be handled like the Oscars handle technical awards: With a ceremony at some other time, and a brief notice in the program that they occurred. While one of the most attractive features of the Boca Symphonia is the evident goodwill on stage, in the lobby and in the audience, having the audience in on things better left to annual dinners is really too much of a good thing.

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