Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Music review: Symphonia, violinist make good case for Rorem concerto

Violinist Livia Sohn.

By Greg Stepanich

There has been no shortage during the past century of American composers who have been willing to write violin concertos.

But there has been a dearth of conductors and orchestras who have been willing to turn those concertos into repertory pieces (or at least try). A tip of the hat, then, to Alexander Platt and the Boca Raton Symphonia, who did their bit Sunday afternoon for the Violin Concerto of Ned Rorem, a highly original, colorful piece that could certainly stand to be heard more often.

Rorem’s concerto, written in 1984, is more of a six-movement suite than it is a concerto in the traditional sense with which most audiences likely are familiar, but nevertheless it adheres broadly to a standard fast-slow-fast structure. The soloist at the Roberts Theatre on the campus of St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton was the violinist Livia Sohn, a young player to whom Platt gave the title of the Rorem concerto’s premier interpreter.

Sohn is indeed a fine violinist, a performer with a strong, rich sound who presented the straightforward lyricism of the third movement (derived from a song Rorem wrote in 1953) with unaffected purity, and the loopy spin-cycle bravura of the fifth movement with impressive technique and nonchalance. With the brusqueness of its opening statement, the savage hammering of the timpani in the second movement, and its passages of stark calm in the fourth movement, it adds up to a concerto of widely varied moods, and Sohn was at ease in presenting all of them.

The Symphonia did an expert job for its part, with good solo work by timpani, flute and trumpet at key moments, and an overall sensitivity to the soloist throughout. This is a worthy, interesting concerto, and performing it is exactly the sort of thing an ambitious American chamber orchestra ought to be doing as a matter of course.

Sohn followed the Rorem with an encore, a tender account of the Louré movement from the solo Partita No. 3 in E (BWV 1006) of J.S. Bach, which showed that she also has a good grasp of Baroque style and applies it with restraint and sobriety.

Sunday’s concert opened with another rarity, the Symphony No. 1 (in D major, D. 82) of the 16-year-old Franz Schubert. This precocious symphonic essay is in some ways closer to an hommage than it is simply derivative, with the tyro composer’s influences laid out clearly for everyone to hear: Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and even Rossini, as Platt suggested in remarks made before the performance.

The Symphonia gave this work a tight, springy sound in its faster movements, which worked admirably with the scalar main theme of the Haydnesque first movement and the virtual Beethoven quote of its secondary theme. The orchestra also played it with vigor and power, which had a way of demonstrating that despite its student origins, this is actually a big work, and would come off just as well played by a large ensemble.

The slow movement, echoing the Andante of Mozart’s Prague Symphony (with a sly chromatic-scale quote at the very end), was warm and expansive, and Platt was surely right in the third movement to play the minuet with force and speed to make a better contrast with the ländler of the trio.

In the finale, Platt and the players stressed lightness and wit, giving it enough distinction to stand out from the first, which it otherwise resembles in sheer bigness and scope. All in all, a fine reading of a sharp piece that could easily be in the Classical rotation on orchestral programs.
The concert closed with another Symphony No. 1, this one by Schumann (in B-flat, Op. 38, Spring).

Here the chamber size of the Symphonia was decisive; this is a work usually heard with larger forces, but it works well with an orchestra the size of the Boca ensemble, and textures were clear and rarely sounded thick.

The Symphonia’s Schumann was a traditional one as far as tempos and general outlook are concerned, and it was a fitting tribute for the composer’s bicentenary this year. But the violins sounded somewhat ragged and tired, especially in the first movement, which got the music off to an anemic start.

Things were better in the ardent slow movement, where the sense of long line was evident as the melody was passed from section to section, and there was plenty of life and bumptious energy in the scherzo and the big-hearted finale.

For its next concert on Sunday, Feb. 14, the Boca Raton Symphonia will be joined by pianist Alessio Bax for a performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 (in F minor, Op. 11) of Frederic Chopin, marking that composer’s 200th birthday. Also on the program are two works of Samuel Barber -- the Capricorn Concerto, Op. 21, and the Adagio for Strings -- plus the Symphony No. 31 (in D, K. 297, Paris) of Mozart. The concert begins at 2:30 p.m. in the Roberts Theatre at St. Andrew’s School, Boca Raton. Call 561-376-3848 or visit www.bocasymphonia.org for tickets ($42-$53) or more information.

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