March 15, 2009

Stretching Summer Festival Season

By Robert P. Commanday

A summer-style music festival in the middle of March? There it was, full-blown in Boca Raton, Florida, the resort community's third annual Festival of the Arts Boca, March 5-15. Of course mid-March is summer there, both weather-wise and in the lifestyle of the seasonal residents who swell the local population this time of year, the snowbirds from New York and the Northeast. Properly for a festival, it was thematically focused and might have been called the Itzhak Perlman Festival. His presence and performances were being celebrated for the 50th anniversary of his U.S. debut.

The other central feature was the top-notch Russian National Orchestra. And unlike its brother San Francisco Symphony, it actually performed a Bay Area composer, and no Russian music. The composition was Gordon Getty's Plump Jack Overture, opening the fifth of the Festival's six music programs, which also offered three soloists in as many works, plus Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From the New World." Performances took place in the large Count de Hoernle Amphitheater located downtown at the foot of one of the town's two high-end malls and roofed by a large temporary tent. All music emanating from the stage was amplified, very effectively but still not live sound.

Getty and Gershwin

Getty's overture kicked off that fifth evening of the festival brightly, last Friday. The piece, benefiting from considerable re-working by the composer since it first appeared, is the sampler type of opera overture, incorporating several prominent themes such as martial flourishes in the brass referring to Henry V's battles in France, and comic characterizations. The orchestra played it well under the evening's guest conductor, self-assured, young, Mexican Alondra de la Parra, who secured the many quick tempo and mood changes. The Plump Jack Overture ends not with a bang but quietly, meaning to segue into the opera. For performance by itself, it could benefit from an alternative concert ending.

Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue got a fair performance by Venezuelan-born pianist, Ana Karina Alamo. The RNO produced a properly jazzy performance, its clarinet, trombone, and trumpet exaggerating the smears and wah-wah with evident relish.

The evening's second soloist was Nina Kotova playing Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto in A Minor on what is believed to be the largest extant Stradivarius. Its former owner was the late Jacqueline du Pré and after her, Lynn Harrell. De la Parra launched the piece at a precipitous tempo, too fast to allow the phrasing in the first movement to breathe expressively. Kotova managed to create a little elbow room while meeting the tempo-enhanced challenge dextrously. In the successive two movements, her glorious tone and fluid technique commanded, and she and the orchestra evoked more of the music's charm.

After intermission mystery guest Joshua Bell played Saint-Saens' Rondo Capriccioso with all the showiness the flamboyant piece invites. De la Parra then led Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, again pushing the tempo in the first movement, the music’s poise exchanged for youthful excitement. She's well-trained, and has a good technique, but the imprecision she consistently allowed in the second movement’s famous "Going home" theme, in its important dotted rhythm motive, compromised its essential serenity. Movements three and four went propulsively and the RNO sounded grand.

Russian Orchestra Delivers a Rich Sound

Last Tuesday, the RNO produced a strong, satisfying Beethoven Fifth Symphony under its founding conductor, Mikhail Pletnev. This performance enhanced his considerable stature and that of the orchestra, which prides itself on its Beethoven. Allowing for the effects (good and bad) of amplification, the orchestra produced a deep sound and musical playing. Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, "Emperor" had much less success. The soloist, Jeremy Denk, played the first movement roughly, crowding and often anticipating Pletnev, while indulging in mooning mannerisms instead of attending to business.

Between performances, one other Getty composition was taken on by the RNO, but not with an audience. The complete, hour-long, yet-to-be-premiered opera The Fall of the House of Usher, based on Edgar Allen Poe's mysterious story, was given a rehearsal run-through with its cast of four singers, led by the San Francisco Opera's chorus director, Ian Robertson. It was dramatically effective, the more so as the rehearsal was at a level approaching performance readiness. The lyrical aria "Beauty and Grace," sung by Poe, who is included as a protagonist in the opera, is a lovely expression of its thought and the finest single piece Getty has written.

Robert P. Commanday, founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was the music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle from 1965 to 1993, and before that a conductor and lecturer at UC Berkeley.