Symphoria goes ‘all in’ for conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, reaches new artistic high
The orchestra’s impressive Masterworks program, anchored by Tchaikovsky’s cathartic Sixth Symphony, also showcased principal clarinetist Allan Kolsky
If you think the glory days of symphonic music in this town perished along with the demise of the former Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, you must have missed Saturday’s Masterworks concert.
Symphoria, Central New York’s (reborn) symphony orchestra now in its second full season, performed a three-work program titled “Northern Lights,” comprising challenging music whose level of technical proficiency and musical sensitivity was virtually indistinguishable from the orchestra of old at its very best.
Memorable performances are often recognized as such from the opening phrases of the first work on the program. Symphoria’s playing in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, a colorfully orchestrated work bubbling with ethnic Russian flavors, began softly with a choir of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons that blended perfectly in-tune — no easy task when an orchestra hasn’t yet had a chance to “warm up.”
The good ensemble work, which included well synchronized pizzicatos in the low strings, was soon followed by nicely phrased solo passages for violin (Peter Rovit), flute (Deborah Coble) and clarinet (John Friedrichs). Impressive individual efforts continued with a sublime tenor trombone solo evoking a Russian Orthodox chant upon which the composer based the melodic material for the work. This solo passage is actually indicated for second trombone — a curious technique Rimsky-Korsakov used in his symphonic poem Scheherazade, as well. Trombonist Ben David Aronson delivered the chant as would a singer, with a large tone and full-bodied projection. Aronson was rightfully singled out for a solo bow at the conclusion of the work.
Symphoria responded alertly to the direction of guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, music director of the Louisiana Philharmonic and several orchestras across Mexico. Though Prieto appeared to favor smaller sized beats during the slower sections, his arms grew increasingly more animated and larger in scope as tempos grew faster. During the loudest sections, the movement of his baton became so forceful it looked as if he were preparing to engage in a duel. (Prieto did not use his baton during the concerto that followed, ostensibly so as not to risk wounding the soloist.) The energy he drew from the players led to a powerful rhythmic drive that prompted the woman seated behind me to pound the back of my seat with her foot — in-sync with the beat, of course.
Allan Kolsky, who occupies the orchestra’s position of principal clarinet, is one of several instrumentalists from the former SSO who stayed on to populate the new orchestra. When offered a chance to solo with Symphoria, Kolsky chose a work long considered to be the Mount Everest of the clarinet repertory: the Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. Kolsky climbed this mountain with secure footing.
Nielsen wrote this work in 1928 as one of a set of concertos designed to fit the individual temperaments and personalities of each member of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. Judging from the concerto’s crazed virtuosic outbursts and jagged melodic lines, I suspect that Danish clarinetist Aage Oxenvad, the clarinetist for whom this was written, was borderline schizophrenic.
Those who have had the pleasure of interacting with Kolsky know that this shy and soft-spoken gentleman hardly fits the image of the performer Nielsen had in mind. Kolsky is also, however, an amateur actor who on several occasions performed with the Syracuse Shakespeare Festival. And if you can do Shakespeare characters, you can do Oxenvad.
Kolsky’s technical facility in this piece — fast fingerwork, rapidly tongued articulations, high notes in the altissimo register and wide-interval jumps between registers — was beyond reproach. It was abundantly clear from his comfortable manner of delivery in this work, which he played from memory, that Kolsky was well prepared for the technical challenges the composer had built into the part.
Nielsen’s concerto, set in a single movement divided into contrasting sections, also calls for a prominent snare drum obbligato — played here in stylistically appropriate fashion (i.e., frenetic) by percussionist Michael Bull. Occasionally, Kolsky’s nuanced tone got swallowed whole by the ra-tat-tat of the snare drum at full volume. This was of course no fault of Bull, who was just giving what the composer had called for. The mismatch lay in Kolsky’s pleasant chamber-like tone, which is not especially well suited to the aggressive and extrovert demands of this work. Still, what Kolsky may not have captured in sheer volume, he certainly captured in spirit. This was, by any measure, an impressive performance of a fiendishly difficult work.
The final work on the program, the culmination of a remarkable evening of quality music making, was Tchaikovsky’s cathartic Symphony No. 6 in B Minor (Pathétique).
First performed only nine days before his death on Nov. 6, 1893, this morose and agonizing symphony culminates in a slow and incredibly poignant final movement that sums up the despair and melancholia of the composer’s state of mind near the end of his life.
Listeners who are not moved to tears after a credible performance of this heart-rending work must have ice water running through their veins.
Deep feelings, when conveyed through music by a composer at the top of his game, are among the most persuasive forms of the listening experience — but only when the quality of performance is as persuasive as the feelings that went into it. Symphoria gave its all for Maestro Prieto, and it showed.
Greg Quick’s darkly hued solo bassoon passage that opened the first movement, played in hushed tones to the murky accompaniment of string basses, resonated in the musical memory clear through the final measure of the last movement — played ever-so softly (double pianissimo) by cellos and basses. (The emotional material in this symphony is concentrated in the two outer movements, with the inner two movements serving as diversions.)
Prieto shunned any hint of schmaltz in the first movement, nurturing the passion of Tchaikovsky’s writing through understatement. His climaxes were exciting, yet rarely overly demonstrative; his beats to the players were controlled, though never pedantic. While I may take issue with his lengthy pauses between starkly contrasting sections in this movement, there’s no question that the celebrated melodic statement played in unison by the strings, one of the most recognized melodies in all of classical music, was made that much more effective as a result of the listener’s having to wait for it. I also felt that Prieto pushed the agitated sections to tempos that tested the limits of what the musicians could comfortably handle, although Symphoria invariably appeared to rise to the occasion.
I was especially impressed with the command of pitch in the brass at the very end of this movement, where against an ostinato of descending pizzicato scales, the horns sounded hushed triads which then passed seamlessly to the trombones.
Following an amiable second movement, a waltz of sorts in 5/4 time whose opening melodic phrase could have profited from a re-tuning of the cello section, came the rousing third movement march. Prieto’s tempo here was ambitious, though workable, and made for some exciting climaxes. This movement often pits the winds against the strings, though playfully so. But the real action here is saved for the brass, particularly the low brass (trombones, bass trombone and tuba), which sounded superb.
The level of excitement generated by the orchestra at the end of the third movement erupted like a long dormant volcano, spurting euphoria throughout the theater and sending the crowd into applause. But wait — there’s another movement to go, and sophisticated audiences are loathe to applaud before the end of the final movement, right? Not so, according to Prieto — who turned to face the embarrassed souls who had instinctively applauded and motioned for the crowd to let go. And so they did — including those of us who thought we knew better.
And then, at last, came the final movement — where the euphoria of the previous movement succumbed to melancholia and utter resignation. Tchaikovsky’s life couldn’t have ended any other way.
Prieto, throughout this movement, was uncharacteristically effusive in the motions of his arms and body, with wide sweeping gestures of his right arm. By the time his baton descended for the final time, ever so slowly, Prieto had squeezed every last drop of emotion from the players onstage — and tears from those in the audience behind him. When the mood subsided and applause began to sweep across the theater, the floodgates opened, finally — with non-stop clapping, cheers and shouts of approval.
It was a moment that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Who: Symphoria, conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto, with clarinetist Allan Kolsky
What: Masterworks Series, “Northern Lights”
Where: Crouse-Hinds Theater, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse
Performance reviewed: Nov. 8, 2014
Program: Works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Carl Nielsen and Tchaikovsky
Time: About 2 hours, including intermission