Sometimes a concert, even well-played, leaves one wanting more. This Friday evening concert of the student orchestra at the Eastern Music Festival, ably led by guest conductor James Ross, dealt us four suits, plenty of face cards, one ace, but no trumps.
Let’s start with the ace, clarinet soloist and long-time EMF faculty member, Shannon Scott. She has a beautiful tone, a brilliant technique and incredible dynamic control. (Her pianissimi were hardly louder than my bated breath!) She was the soloist in Carl Nielsen’s Concerto for Clarinet, Op. 57, a quirky and moody piece written for a colleague and friend who was believed to be bi-polar (in current parlance). Nielsen scored the concerto for strings, two horns and two bassoons… and … a snare drum soloist! The snare drum part was played to perfection by young Adam Cosgrove from Tampa, Florida, although placing him near the back of the orchestra diminished the dramatic impact of his interventions. A sloppy first violin passage of dotted rhythms in the first half of the concerto disturbed the otherwise excellent pacing of the orchestra.
The Nielsen is an exhilarating work to conduct or to play – much more so than to listen to it. Or to re-phrase Mark Twain’s comment about Wagner, “Nielsen’s music is better than it sounds!” The problem with the concerto is to be in the audience and to hear it rather to be in the orchestra and play it! Perhaps what is needed to “bring it off” for our audience is a stroke of interpretive genius or a performance as idiosyncratic (or more so) than the concerto itself! And it hardly helps the audience that the piece ends in a whisper.
The concert started with the popular and often played Overture to La forza del destino by Giuseppe Verdi, in a performance which met but did not exceed expected standards. The orchestra played well – it was a pleasure to see and hear two harps!
Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920) is an American composer in the impressionist style often thought of as French. His best-known works are his "Poem for Flute and Orchestra," the White Peacock for piano (later orchestrated) and the work which started the second half of the concert, "The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan," based loosely on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetic fragment, "Kubla Khan."
There was much great playing by the student musicians – lovely bi-tonal entrances by the trombones in the beginning and a beautiful and impressively smooth set of oboe solos. The entire orchestra shone in the engaging short (eight minutes) work.
The concert ended with Robert Russell Bennett’s twenty-four minute symphonic arrangement of many of the songs from George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess. Although mostly familiar to the concertgoer, the artful assembly of a dozen songs does not make a cohesive work, no matter how well played.
So the cards dealt did not lead to a winning hand. Or to change metaphors, four sandwiches do not replace a pièce de résistance! “Where’s the meat?”
A word about the guest conductor – wearing an elegant high-buttoned jacket of greenish hue, James Ross stands slim and tall, and gives the appearance of a sober conservative conductor in the old traditional style. His gestures are clear and bold, often high above his head. He did not appear to be overly emotive until the Gershwin, when he allowed himself a couple of lunges and several jumps as his attention shifted from section to section. It would be interesting to see him at work in a lengthier and more profound program.