Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Music review: Conductor Tebar impressive in PB Symphony evening

Conductor Ramón Tebar.

By Greg Stepanich

The young Spanish conductor Ramón Tebar has been working as Palm Beach Opera’s assistant conductor for the past four seasons, and now with the new title of conductor-in-residence at the Palm Beach Symphony, his local profile is likely to rise.

Tuesday night at the Society of the Four Arts, an appreciative audience saw Tebar open the symphony’s new season, and while one would have wished him to have a more polished ensemble to work with, he demonstrated an exciting podium style and a genuine commitment to the music that made the program satisfying in spite of its unfinished edges.

The evening’s theme was concert music by operatic composers, and the original opener of the three works was scheduled to be the Barber of Seville overture by Rossini. It was replaced by Mozart’s thrice-familiar string serenade, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (in G, K. 525), which was a little out of keeping with the implied program of music by people who usually are associated with the opera house.

As it turned out, this Nachtmusik was the most consistently well-played selection of the evening, one in which the strings of the orchestra demonstrated smoothness and consistency, in which phrases wrapped up smartly and uniformly, and one in which Tebar could wave his hand in the direction of the violins and hear the players answer back with a unison rubato.

Tebar, who conducted the entire concert from memory, favors brisk tempi and strong accents, and this was a vigorous Mozart from beginning to end. Even the Andante movement had force and plenty of forward motion, with the second violins digging into the low open Gs, and the upper reaches of the primary melody sounding exuberant rather than dreamy.

In the Allegretto, there was good contrast between the two themes, though there could have been more, and the upward rocket of the finale’s opening theme was not quite as precise as it needed to be in the early going. But these were smudges on what was otherwise a laudably clear, clean and tight reading of this canonical music.

The Siegfried Idyll of Richard Wagner that followed got off to a shaky start with inaccurate octaves in the violins, and it was not until the last cadence of the introduction that it was clear what key the music was heading for. Tebar’s chief tempo was sensibly slow, not glacial, appropriate for the verve that this serene music still contains.

The horn playing here was marked by numerous flubs, which detracted from the generally good work of the winds and brass, who stood up as a group for the pages near the end in which they have their final ensemble statement. Overall, the piece hung together acceptably enough, but the work’s delicate balance was upset by the inaccuracies, which prevented the piece from truly coalescing and achieving that special glowing magic typical of Wagner’s love music.

The second half of the program was devoted to the Symphony in C, the astonishingly precocious essay of 1855 written by a 17-year-old Georges Bizet. Only Mendelssohn and perhaps Schubert match Bizet’s skill at a comparable age, and the work has become a classic of the French repertoire.

As in the Mozart, Tebar’s reading was athletic and fast, and you could see his joy in music-making as he cued in various sections and themes with amusing gestures and aggressive motions with body and baton. The first movement had plenty of fire and youth, and very little of the lightheartedness some of the music-hall melodic phrases seem to lend themselves to.

The slow movement, dominated by a lovely, exotic-sounding oboe solo, was beautifully played by Jennifer Potochnic, but much of the music around her was in serious need of repair, including the out-of-tune, botched entrances in brass and strings in the opening bars, and later on, continued trouble in the solo horn, and poor violin intonation in the first statement of the fugal middle section.

Tebar and the orchestra brought fine contrast to the two sections of the scherzo movement, and the very swift finale had an infectious energy that overrode concerns about a lack of precision in the violins; this is music that works best of all when everything is just so. That was not the case here, but there were high spirits in the ensemble and complete engagement on the podium.

Had this been a performance with a greater level of finish and accuracy, Tebar might have been seen to be making a most persuasive case for this fine symphony, the kind of case in which the listener thinks of the Bizet as a good substitute for the usual lighter symphonies he or she might encounter.

Yet it was an enjoyable evening nonetheless, and at least reminds local audiences that in Tebar they have a good young conductor to be reckoned with.

The Palm Beach Symphony next month plays pieces by Shostakovich as accompaniment to a showing of Sergei Eisenstein's silent film, The Battleship Potemkin. The special presentation is set for 2 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 13, at the Kravis Center. For more information, call 832-7469 or visit

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