The Frost Symphony Orchestra showed its versatility during Saturday night’s opening concert of the season with rich, layered interpretations of works by a contemporary American composer, a Russian revolutionary and a master of the heart of the ‘Europe.
Under the direction of conductor Gerard Schwarz, a strong advocate of American music, the University of Miami Student Orchestra opened the concert, broadcast live from Gusman Hall, with Umoja by Valérie Coleman. A new faculty member at the university, Coleman is a flautist and the first black woman to have a work commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Umoja, named for the Swahili word for unity, travels a long distance in about 14 minutes of music, as Coleman attempts to portray the impact on society of racism and injustice. After having composed it for female voices, she arranged it for wind quintet and then prepared a version for orchestra.
The work opens with tones that suggest a sunrise, with swelling winds and shimmering dissonances. Bright melodies and broad harmonies evoke an America with wide open spaces. At the same time, the skillfully crafted music has a charged and contrapuntal quality, like an Appalachian concerto grosso.
Angular tones in the percussions and the winds interrupt this idyll, which the musicians of Frost carried away with a tone of controlled violence. After a few minutes of turbulence, a hard-earned peace arrives, with strings playing over a low brass pillow, for an upbeat, hard-earned and quietly triumphant ending.
Igor Stravinsky The song of the nightingale never reached the popularity of his other major in the early 1920se works of the century, The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.
But like these works, it is full of exotic colors and dissonances that must have seemed particularly harsh at the time of its composition. And like the previous works, it is a virtuoso orchestral music. It bristles with exposed solo passages, fast sections, weird rhythms and constant changes in the time signature, the rhythmic grid on which the music is played.
Based on an opera that Stravinsky wrote from a story by Hans Christian Andersen, it tells the story of a nightingale who sings for a Chinese emperor, is replaced by a mechanical nightingale, then returns to sing the dying emperor in health.
Under Schwarz, the orchestra gave a polite performance. If the playing sometimes felt restricted, as if a great part of the effort was devoted to getting the notes right, the result was always energetic and assured, with a wide and swirling exoticism.
Solo play was exceptional throughout. Flutist Dmytro Gnativ gave an agile and effortless account of the quick notes of the nightingale’s song. Trumpeter Kevin Karabell formulated a fisherman’s song with warm, evocative tones.
The concert ended with a central work of the orchestral repertoire, Brahms’ Symphony No. 3, composed in 1883 (when Stravinsky, by the way, was one year old).
Although it was the most familiar work in the program, the performance was the least polished, with irregular passages and problems with intonation. But a performance doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective, and the orchestra conducted by Schwarz gave a powerful and moving rendition of Brahms’ most heroic symphony.
The Allegro con brio opened with grandiose and rapid phrases, expressing the breadth and scope of Brahms’ musical vision. Schwarz expertly paced the Andante, giving the music plenty of room to breathe, with majestic pauses and unhurried, but never slow phrasing. With shimmering strings and winds, he and the orchestra carried the movement to an effective climax.
The third movement opens with one of the composer’s most famous melodies, a milestone in the musical life of many Brahms enthusiasts. The orchestra delivered a moving story, richly played but with a touch of raw emotion. The melody returned in different atmospheres, by turns melancholy and contemplative, while it was taken up by the winds and the brass, finally returning for a last burning performance on the violins.
The last move came with much of the heroic qualities of the first. The orchestra gave cut and forceful accounts of the gruff Beethovenian phrases, increasing the excitement until the movement ended quietly.
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