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High Moments, Letdowns
From Asian Youth Symphony

August 21, 1999

Jon Nakamatsu

By Joseph Bloom

When very talented young artists come together to make music, the possibility exists for music making of the highest order. The combination of talent, enthusiasm, and energy mixed with the joy of discovering for the first time great emotions and great musical ideas can transfigure the artists and lead to inspired playing. It was a disappointment that these qualities were for the most part absent at Saturday night's performance of the Asian Youth Orchestra under Sergiu Comissiona in Zellerbach Hall at U.C. Berkeley.

It is unlikely that the cause of this lack of vivacity was impassiveness on the part of the youthful players. It is attributable more readily to the conductor who trained them. The orchestra seemed more hypnotized than inspired by Comissiona. Obsession with points of finesse replaced soaring lines. Subtleties in phrasing were chosen over elan. Seamless ensemble work, expressed in rhythmic transitions and changes in timbres, was chosen over the kinetic excitement that could reach out to move and involve the audience. It was like the severity and exactness of Fritz Reiner but without the warmth and glow, an exercise in control alone. To the group's credit, it was highly responsive to Comissiona's ideas. To Comissiona's credit, in six weeks of rehearsal, he crafted a group with good ensemble instincts.

Comissiona made the orchestra's strengths apparent at the concert's outset, in Leopold Stokowski's transcription of Bach's organ Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Crescendos and diminuendos were made as if by one player. Intonation in the opening unisons by the winds was superior. However, also apparent from the start was a lack of depth and resonance in the brass, the cellos, and as became evident later during the program, in the orchestra. It is surprising that Comissiona had not developed the group's total sound more. The Bach was performed with more precision than Stokowski probably envisioned, gaining in some ways, as in an appreciation of the details of orchestration, but losing in the grandeur and spaciousness of the work.

In Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, in C minor, with Jon Nakamatsu as soloist, the idiom and sentiment seemed foreign to the players. The emotional significance inherent in certain harmonic progressions was not understood. Nakamatsu, gold medalist of the tenth Van Cliburn Competition in 1997, and a local Californian, was a favorite with the audience. His playing was characterized by a naturalness of line, fluency in runs and a nicely understated ease in fast passages, brilliant in the last movement. The single negative feature was the same lack of bite that characterized the orchestra's playing. The cadenza in the first movement was handled impressively. However, the coda which followed, that marvelous inspiration which reaches emotional and dramatic depths hitherto unattained in the movement, seem somewhow denatured.

The slow movement was an exercise in subdued sonorities. The performers seemed seduced by the mellowness that the movement's key, E major, achieves in its contrast to the preceding C Minor. Though the preceding movement's defiant and titanic urgings are suspended, there should still be some echo of the defiance and heroism of the first movment. Nakamatsu played two solo encores, the "Black Key" Etude by Chopin, and a work unknown to this reviewer, possibly a Mendelssohn Song Without Words in D Major.

Comissiona made a fairly personal statement in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, in F minor. He wove a complex polyphonic tapestry in the first movement. Though individual phrases were very finely shaped, they did not join together into a coherent, dynamic whole. Some of the better playing of the evening occurred in the second movement where even the players' body language began to reflect the music. Normally a crowd pleaser, the third movement, was soporific, its perpetual pizzicatos overly refined, the recurrent wind choruses far from ebullient, the brass unenthusiastic. The tumultuous finale was played with no risk-taking that might have ignited the performers.

The violin section as a whole was superior, the violas very good. The celli, flaccid and unresonant in the first half, redeemed themselves in the Tchaikovsky. The winds that stood out included the flutist in the Beethoven, the piccolo, clarinet and bassoon in the Tchaikovsky. The brass in general seemed lethargic, leaving the orchestra's sound as a whole without punch. There were memorable moments: breathtaking arpeggios in the strings leading up to the final cadence in the Bach, a Piccolo lick in the third movement of the Tchaikovsky, and again in the Tchaikovsky deft, behind-the-scenes work in octaves between clarinet and bassoon.

The evening's finest playing was the encore, from Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. Joyfulness and charm replaced the reserve that had cast a pall over the evening's music making.

(Joseph Bloom is a concert pianist and teacher, member of the San Domenico School music faculty, formerly on the Rutgers University and Bennington College faculties, and former WQXR classical radio host.)

©1999 Joseph Bloom, all rights reserved