Buff Phil conductor JoAnn Falletta leads the newly reborn orchestra in a challenging program and draws impressive results
Old wine in new bottles can taste surprisingly good.
Symphoria — Central New York’s musician-run symphony orchestra that has been “fermenting” a new product from the sour grapes of a bankrupted Syracuse Symphony Orchestra — has been reborn, rebottled, rebranded and repackaged into a leaner operation that is looking to eliminate the bitter aftertaste of the SSO’s shutdown two years ago.
The results, judging from the quality of playing at Saturday evening’s concert, are encouraging: The new product is, at the very least, promising. And like a bottle of fine wine, it’s sure to improve with age.
The Masterworks Series (formerly Classics Series) program was buoyed by the presence of a pair of talented and highly visible guest artists: JoAnn Falletta and Susan Platts.
Falletta, widely credited with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s rise to prominence (including 18 recording collaborations under the Naxos label) has captured the attention of the classical music world, garnering favorable reviews from Gramophone Magazine and a pair of Grammy Awards. Platts, the British-born Canadian mezzo-soprano and protégée of acclaimed American operatic dramatic soprano Jessye Norman, has sung in some of the best venues with the most prominent orchestras under the greatest conductors in the business.
Falletta and Platts teamed up with Symphoria for what proved to be a rewarding — and at times, dazzling — musical journey through two exotic versions of Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel), along with Carl Nielsen’s often-neglected Aladdin Suite.
With its strongly defined bass lines and brazen use of the low brass, the Aladdin Suite (which opened the program) anticipated the bold writing in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, which followed Nielsen’s suite by two decades. Still, parallels to Prokofiev aside, this work can hardly be counted among Nielsen’s best.
Ravel’s Schéhérazade gets my vote for the most captivating work on the program. This colorfully orchestrated three-movement song cycle pits the dark timbral hues of the mezzo-soprano against a richly-textured, sweeping orchestral accompaniment. And when it comes to orchestration, no one does it better than Ravel.
Schéhérazade is one of only a handful of the composer’s works that may rightly be labeled Impressionistic (Ravel tended to lean towards neo-classicism), and is every bit as sensuous as his better known efforts in this style, such as the Daphnis et Chloé ballet and Quatuor à cordes (String Quartet).
Platts’s rich and darkly textured mezzo-soprano was especially attractive in its middle and low registers, which throughout the performance resonated with deep intensity. I especially enjoyed her tender and expressive delivery of the final song, L’indefférent — a soft and gentle movement that afforded Platts the opportunity to all but whisper her phrases. While Platts’s upper register in the opening Asie may have lacked some degree of staying power against the brute strength of the sizable orchestra, her magnificent French diction remained crisp and intelligible at all times.
This was my first opportunity to experience Falletta live. At the podium, she was in a near-constant state of animation, and conducted in large and clearly defined beats — although I suspect she exercises greater subtlety when dealing with the Buffalo Philharmonic and other orchestras she works with on a regular basis.
In the Ravel, Falletta took precautions not to overpower Platts, and allowed the mezzo-soprano to stretch her phrases broadly in the middle song, La flûte enchantée — although I thought the unusually slow opening tempo afforded principal flutist Deborah Coble precious little freedom with which to add shape and shimmer to her solo.
In the Rimsky-Korsakov, Falletta refrained from conducting beats during the second movement cadenza-like solos for clarinet and bassoon — signaling confidence in these two first-chair players. She used lots of body language to communicate with the cello section in the tender phrases that open the sensuous third movement, which I though worked especially well. At other times, Falletta was decidedly less accommodating: Her tempos in the relentless final movement were uncompromisingly fast.
In a recent interview, Falletta said she chose the widely popular Rimsky-Korsakov version of Scheherezade to give listeners an opportunity to hear the orchestra’s individual players. As such, Symphoria’s performance of this work served as a microcosm of sorts for the present ensemble’s strengths — and weaknesses.
The good news, and there’s lots of it, is that a number of strong players have chosen to stay on rather than seek opportunities elsewhere. These include principal basssonist Greg Quick, a standout section leader whose exquisite solo at the opening of the second movement (The Kalendar Prince) reveals the unmistakable signs of an artist at the top of his game. Other noteworthy efforts from the wind section in this movement include first and second clarinetists John Friedrichs and Victoria Krukowski, and flute and piccolo players Deborah Coble and Linda Greene.
Standouts in the brass section include first horn Julie Bridge, who delivered her first and second movement solos confidently and with impeccable pitch, and trumpeter John Raschella, who captured the moment several times throughout the brass-heavy four-movement tone poem.
Last but not least, Peter Rovit stepped up to the first-chair (concertmaster) responsibilities and played his cadenza-like double-stop passages with panache. Rovit kept his cool during the pernicious solo in the altissimo register at the end of the final movement, maintaining pitch throughout the lengthy, sustained note perched somewhere in the stratosphere.
Among the things needing improvement in this orchestra is the trombone section (staffed entirely with substitutes), which lacked depth, volume and just plain guts in what should have been an imposing theme representing the evil Sheikh at the opening of the first movement The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship. The principal oboe (also a sub) was rather timid in tone and projection throughout the program, while and the first second violin sections had some degree of difficulty staying in-sync during the louder tutti sections. (More than half the violins Saturday were substitute players.)
It may take some time for Symphoria to regain the full measure of its pre-2011 strength. After all, the new pared-down orchestra shed its management and its music director, not to mention a seven million dollar annual budget. Moreover, the orchestra has lost a sizable portion of its seasoned musicians to competing venues across the U.S and Canada.
But the challenges facing Symphoria, while formidable, are by no means insurmountable.
It all comes down to this: Does Symphoria have, or can it attract, sufficient talent and performance expertise to maintain the quality of playing we have come to expect? The quality of playing on Saturday’s handsomely programmed Masterworks Series concert suggests that it does — and that it can. But it will need the support of the local community to stem the tide of defections and attract fresh talent.
For now, at least, it’s best to think of Symphoria as a work in progress: Old wine in new bottles whose quality is positioned to improve steadily through the inexorable process of aging. There are no shortcuts.
Who: Symphoria, conducted by JoAnn Falletta
What: Masterworks Series #2
Where: CrouseHinds Theater, Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St.
When: April 6, 2013
Time of performance: One hour and 25 minutes, including intermission
Next Masterworks concert: 7:30 p.m. May 11, Fabio Mechetti, conductor, and Jon Kimura Parker, pianist.
Tickets and information: http://www.experiencesymphoria.org/