Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Music review: Fresh Mendelssohn, new violinist shine at Boca Symphonia

Violinist Ernö Kallai.

By Greg Stepanich

BOCA RATON – It’s not every day that you hear a world premiere of a Mendelssohn symphony, and if that sounds like a too-eager acceptance of a publicist's line, let this also be said: It works.

The first concert Sunday afternoon of the Boca Raton Symphonia’s fifth season was noteworthy for the cantata-less arrangement of Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony its conductor put together, but it also was impressive for its programming of a fine 20th-century American work and the appearance of an Itzhak Perlman protégé in the Violin Concerto No. 1 of Max Bruch.

There was one major downside in that the sound of the orchestra, particularly in the violins, was not as rich or unified as it has been in previous concerts, and this was most notable in the Bruch and the Mendelssohn. But overall, conductor Alexander Platt demonstrated why his soon-to-end tenure at the helm of the group has been such a good one: Fresh, even risky programming, and committed performances.

Platt, who will be replaced next year by the French pianist and conductor Philippe Entremont, gave credit to Symphonia president Marshall Turkin for asking Perlman to recommend someone as soloist in the Bruch. Perlman suggested a 22-year-old Hungarian named Ernö Kallai, who studies with him at Juilliard, and who proved to be a worthy and impressive choice, a violinist with a strong, commanding sound who has a good feel for Bruch's late Romantic rhetoric.

Kallai also has a penetrating tone that could be heard in his very first traversal of the G minor neighborhood in his opening statement; it's important that the soloist seize the spotlight in this wide-open writing, and Kallai did just that. Except for the last train of double stops before the end, in which his tuning was a little shy of the mark, Kallai's technique was admirable and reliable, and he played throughout with cool confidence.

Kallai's work was particularly enjoyable in the Adagio, when he demonstrated a strong sensitivity to this heart-on-sleeve music, stressing its long lines so that every word of its emotional confession could be heard. It was a fine performance, and while the Symphonia sounded ragged at first, it came together as the music progressed and the two made decent partners. It would be well worth hearing Kallai again, but this time in a more fearsome concerto, to see what he would make of it.

Platt opened the concert with what surely was the local premiere of a 1951 piece by the American composer Irving Fine, an academic who died young (47) in 1962, and whose work has a Fauré-like delicacy and reserve that is quite attractive. Fine's Notturno for Strings and Harp is probably his most-played work, and in its 15 minutes it offers a severe sort of beauty in which Fine's precise ear for delicate orchestral color is much in evidence.

The Symphonia did well by Fine, offering a persuasive reading of this Stravinsky-tinged work. The closing Adagio perhaps came off best of all, with fervent snatches of viola solo well-played by Michael Klotz, and a good sense of architecture in the playing of the four-note climbing scale that rounds off the final pages.

The concert closed with Platt's version of the Mendelssohn Symphony No. 2 (in B-flat, Op. 52, Lobgesang), which is really the composer's fourth full symphony, and in its original version ends with a huge (and gorgeous) cantata requiring soloists and a chorus. Platt (at right) quite cannily has substituted Mendelssohn's earlier Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage overture, Op. 27, which is in the same key (D major) as the third movement of the symphony and makes a suitable instrumental stand-in for the original finale.

The weakness in the violins was evident in the first movement, which has a kind of celebratory bigness that didn't quite come off because of it. The dancelike second movement sounded better and more unified, though, and had a winsome grace characteristic of Mendelssohn's music.

In the third movement Adagio religioso, Pratt wisely maintained a tempo that moved along and avoided stained-glass solemnity, leaving the Beethoven-like melody to speak with its full passionate intent. The overture that closed the symphony has much exciting music, including a thunderous timpani solo and a big brass fanfare at the end, that make it sound like a natural finale (only its quiet ending, like Dvorak's New World Symphony, argues against it).

What Platt has created is another decent Mendelssohn symphony, more on the order of the Reformation rather than the Scottish or Italian symphonies, yet clearly well worth doing, and he deserves credit for thinking of it and having the courage to try it. It adds a good early Romantic score to the repertoire of smaller orchestras, and allows some worthy music that would otherwise be overlooked to have new life.

The Boca Raton Symphonia will next be heard Dec. 4-6 in three complete performances of George Frideric Handel's Messiah, to be presented along with the Master Chorale of South Florida under the baton of James Judd, former conductor of the Florida Philharmonic. 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4, at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Miami; 8 p.m. Saturday at Spanish River Church, Boca Raton; and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. For more information, visit www.masterchoraleofsouthflorida.org, or call 954-418-6232.

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