May 11 Symphoria Masterworks Series

Fabio Mechetti 2Symphoria, led by Fabio Mechetti, turns the clock back to the glory years of the 1990s

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker joins the former SSO music director in a thrilling program that keeps the memories — and expectations for the future — alive

By David Abrams

Those in Central New York who experienced the Fabio Mechetti years with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra know that he is a conductor accustomed to taking command.  And he wastes little time doing so.

When the Brazilian-born conductor won the audition for associate conductor of the SSO in 1989, members of the orchestra described how Mechetti took immediate control at his rehearsal-audition and made it appear as if it were his orchestra right from the start.  Mechetti succeeded Kazuyoshi Akiyama four years later as SSO music director largely on the strength of that authority, which he continued to exercise until leaving the post in 1999.

Mechetti, now music director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, returned to Syracuse last weekend to an orchestra comprising familiar faces, only now carrying the name Symphoria.  And he resumed command as if the metronome had never stopped ticking.  He led the new orchestra Saturday at its third and final Masterworks Series concert, and his influence took hold almost immediately with a well-disciplined execution of Verdi’s overture to La forza del destino.

Watching the back of Mechetti’s head triggered memories of the days of the SSO in its full splendor, with focused playing and meticulous ensemble that largely defined the Mechetti years.  As was his custom then, the maestro conducted this piece from memory, with a firm hand and an unmistakable sense of determination.  The orchestra, which occasionally sounded disheveled during its previous Masterworks concert, hung on to Mechetti’s every beat as though following the proverbial Pied Piper.

The overture sounded fresh and invigorating, with the opening low brass statement bold and in-tune, and the violin section that followed tight and well synchronized.  The work also featured some nice solo passagework from principal clarinetist Allan Kolsky.

Mechetti used to say that Syracuse is a “piano town.”  Programming the melodically rich Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 — along with the dazzling crowd-pleaser, Pines of Rome — was no doubt part of the new Symphoria strategy designed to woo back the faithful.

The Chaik 1 is also a warhorse that Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker has tackled many time before, having recorded the piece under André Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1986, and having played it many time since — including three weeks ago with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz (Mechetti, I believe, was on a conducting assignment in Brazil).

The Canadian-born pianist played with firm fingers and a large, assertive sound that stood up to (and several times overpowered) the orchestra playing at full strength.  The broken-octave passages (and this piece is chock full of them) were solid and sure-handed, unmuddied by excessive pedaling or, for that matter, superfluous gesticulations.  But Parker can also play softly and with restraint, as shown in his caressing of the melodic lines in the sensuous slow movement.   

Parker saved the best for last.  His gargantuan tone in the final section, culminating in a hair-raising coda showered with dazzling broken octaves, shook the hall and swept the crowd to its feet with vociferous applause and howling that made me wonder if I were at a Syracuse Crunch hockey game.  The final chord had hardly sounded when Parker sprang from the piano bench and into Mechetti’s arms for a well-deserved hug.  The gesture of appreciation, no doubt intended for both conductor and orchestra, was well deserved. 

Following a rather tentative opening tutti horn passage, Symphoria sounded alert, prepared and at times even sublime.  A good many of the musicians had been with the former SSO on its final trip to Carnegie Hall on April 5, 2003 with Van Cliburn Competition gold co-winner (2001), Stanislav Ioudenitch.  Experience matters. The strings section delivered power and intensity in the louder sections of the concerto, and the shapely flute solo at the opening of the dreamy second movement sounded all the more intoxicating through the silken tone of principal flutist, Deborah Coble.

For his encore, Parker chose the Danse Russe from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka — a piece whose steely, percussive touch suits this pianist’s style especially well.

With the new onstage camera that pans the stage and projects real-time images of the orchestra and soloists onto a large screen suspended above the players,

Parker’s fingers were clearly visible to all.  Curiously, there was a split-second time delay between watching Parker’s hands pound the keyboard and hearing the sounds he was making (particularly noticeable during the work’s familiar opening chords), resembling a badly synchronized voice-over on a foreign film dubbed into English.

Symphoria closed the program with Respighi’s aurally opulent Pines of Rome.  This symphonic poem is the second (and most popular) installment of the Italian composer’s “Roman trilogy,” sandwiched between Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals.  Here, each of the four movements portrays a thought-provoking mood about various pine trees in Rome. The dazzling orchestration of the opening Pines of the Villa Borghese, like Stravinsky’s Petroushka written about two decades earlier, reveals the unmistakable influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, with whom Respighi had studied. 

The expanded orchestra responded alertly to Mechetti’s widely arched baton gestures, bouncing splashes of orchestral color from wall-to-wall.  The solemn chords in the low strings and Gregorian Chant-like phrases in the trombones provided an evocative background for principal trumpeter John Raschella’s evocative and poignant offstage solo in Pines Near a Catacomb. Pines of Rome has the distinction of being the first orchestral work to incorporate pre-recorded media. 

Respighi in his musical score actually specified the recording to be used to generate nightingales chirping during the sinuous Pines of the Janiculum movement.  Mechetti’s messaging of the lush violin passages, seasoned with the sounds of the harp and celesta, provided a peaceful backdrop for one of the most haunting and delicate clarinet solos in the orchestral repertory — which Kolsky (who had a busy night Saturday) played beautifully.

Like Ravel’s Bolero, the final Pines of the Appian Way takes the listener along a lengthy and persistent crescendo that culminates in a blaze of glory.  One could almost hear the approaching footsteps of the triumphant soldiers marching along the Appian Way under Mechetti’s patient building of tension to the final climax.

Credit the oboe section’s Alina Plourde for her commanding English Horn solo early on in the movement.  It’s too bad that the leader of that section consistently falls short of Symphorias other principal winds in providing the projection and confidence of delivery expected of first-chair players.

As was the case with the previous Masterworks Series concert under JoAnn Falletta, attendance at this performance was entirely respectable.  There was however a noticeable difference with respect to the general level of playing between this performance and last: This one was better.  Part of the credit has to go to the former SSO music director, whose style and direction many of the players already know from his era of leadership in the 1990s.  There was no need for a “breaking in” period. (Symphoria put this program together in only three rehearsals.)

Mostly, however, I believe that the quality of musicianship in a professional symphony orchestra is proportional to its experience playing together as an ensemble, and to its level of respect and admiration for its leader.

Symphoria will continue to improve its skills as it builds an increased schedule of concert performances.  But it will continue to require nourishment from demanding, no-nonsense conductors such as Fabio Mechetti to inspire — and discipline — the musicians to dig deeply into their formidable skills to continue to produce impressive efforts such as this one.

Details Box:
Who: Symphoria, conducted by Fabio Mechetti with pianist Jon Kimura Parker
What: Masterworks Series #3
Where: Crouse-Hinds Theater, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse
When:  May 11, 2013
Time of performance: One hour and 35 minutes, including intermission
Tickets and information: www.experiencesymphoria.org/