Sunday, October 25, 2009

Music review: Lynn Phil opens season with strong Prokofiev

Albert-George Schram and the Lynn Philharmonia.

By Greg Stepanich

You can't get a majority of people to like Schoenberg, it seems, even 100 years later, but that should not obscure the main impression left Saturday night by the Lynn Philharmonia -- that this is an orchestra that keeps going from strength to strength.

The Lynn orchestra, like all such student groups, has a continually changing roster, but the ensemble's quality has grown steadily in recent years, and with the first concerts of the current season it has taken things another step higher. The Philharmonia opened its season with the Five Pieces for Orchestra, a major work of early atonality by Schoenberg, and closed with a powerful, persuasive reading of the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony.

Neither of these two works is easy in any respect, nor was the third selection, Mozart's Prague Symphony (No. 38 in D, K. 504). And while the performances lacked some of the lived-in polish that comes with prolonged exposure and practice, more important were the things you didn't hear: No major missed entrances, no obvious disagreements about tempi, and most importantly, no section that was noticeably weaker than another.

Conductor Albert-George Schram told the audience at the Roberts Theatre to concentrate on the sound pictures Schoenberg had painted as they are, rather than how they relate to consonant music. "Think of it as The Twilight Zone without the movie," he said, to appreciative laughter, but Schram doubtless knew the Five Pieces (Op. 16, composed in 1909 and heard in their 1949 chamber orchestra version) would be a tough sell.

That's unfortunate, because the Philharmonia played these absolutely original, groundbreaking works rather well. This version of the score doesn't have the monumentality or the extravagance of the original, but it still has plenty of impact. The first piece (Premonitions) came across with plenty of nervous energy, and the second (Yesteryears) had some good string playing in the most contrapuntal part of the piece that gave the music a strong sense of regret and loss.

The great upward swoop of sound that closes the fourth piece (Peripetia) was most effective, and the fifth (The Obligatory Recitative) had a squirmy energy that could have evaporated more convincingly had the closing bars been judged better. The third movement (Colors) was more monochromatic than it should have been, but if it didn't deliver what its composer had in mind, it was of a piece with the overall cautiousness the Lynn displayed throughout the work.

As expected, the audience gave the Schoenberg only tepid applause, and many grousing remarks about it could be heard at intermission, perhaps proof that there are some innovations that just won't take no matter how much time they've been around. Still, on a technical level this was impressive music-making, and it could be that this afternoon's performance will be more confident from an interpretive position and help the five pieces stand out with greater singularity from one another.

The Mozart symphony that followed might have been chosen for its relative brevity, having only three movements instead of four. But it's a marvelous work, and Schram's approach was on the fast and nimble side, which suited it. Ensemble was solid right from the opening bars, with the up-rolling triplets in synch, and each subsequent entrance accurate carefully placed. It's in these very exposed slow introductions of the Classical period that an orchestra's weaknesses are often cruelly apparent, but there was little to none of that here.

The outer fast movements had vigor and plenty of punch, and the fugal section of the first movement bustled along with clarity and snap. The middle movement was less slow than it was lilting, thanks to Schram's brisk tempo, and while there was some unsteadiness at the outset about the actual pace of the movement, it cleared up quickly (the same thing happened in the finale).

This was good Mozart, with excellent ensemble throughout, particularly in the violins, and an unsentimental interpretive overview that brought the variety of the composer's invention to bracing life.

The second half was dominated by the Fifth Symphony (in B-flat, Op. 100) of Sergei Prokofiev, written in 1944 and premiered just days before the fall that compromised the composer's health for the remaining nine years of his life. It is strong, virile, brash music, replete with Prokofiev's muscularity and his enviable gift for tunes.

Both the first and fourth movements feature chattering motifs in the strings, music that sounds like sarcastic commentary on the previous bars, and the precision and ensemble of the Lynn violins was impressive. Just as impressive was the brass playing in the first movement in the chorale moment near the end; the trumpet tone in particular was round and rich, not merely loud and forceful, and it's that kind of detail that make music deep rather than only entertaining.

Schram's tempo for the second movement was very fast indeed, but it held together without flagging, and there was good solo work from clarinet and horn in addition to the famous carnival-style tune in the middle, which showcased exemplary unity in the woodwinds. Some fine work from the cellos stood out early in the third-movement Adagio, as did the brass-and-percussion explosion of the funeral march passages and the smooth lyricism of the violins.

The fourth-movement finale also had good solo string playing at the opening, and a strong solo from the principal clarinet. The cohesiveness of the Philharmonia by this point was nearly unbudgeable, and the members of the orchestra drove this restless, exciting music to its powerful conclusion as one.

A conservatory orchestra content to serve only as a sonic outlet for required credits does not necessarily pursue the Prokofiev Fifth or the Schoenberg Five Pieces when a Beethoven will do, but this is a group with serious chops, and the Prokofiev in particular was everything it should have been for a 20th-century masterwork in a sometimes difficult idiom. It raised the bar for the rest of the Lynn Philharmonia season, and should raise the orchestra's profile in the minds of the local concertgoing public.

The Lynn Philharmonia Orchestra repeats this program at 4 p.m. today at the Roberts Theatre at St. Andrew's School in Boca Raton. Tickets are $30, and can be had at the door or by calling 237-9000 or visiting

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