It’s All in the Interpretation: National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic at the University of Maryland, July 2, 2011

For the past few years, my annual visit to the National Orchestral Institute has come at the beginning of the month these young musicians spend at the University of Maryland, learning their orchestral craft from distinguished faculty and showing their skills in a series of weekly concerts. This year, I thought I’d catch ‘em later on, to hear the finished product in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Dekelboum Hall. Saturday’s concert, the last by this year’s NOI Philharmonic, featured two purely orchestral showpieces under the direction of Carlo Rizzi — Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Carlo Rizzi, the man who led the NOIers on Saturday

Whether limning autumnal harmonies in the former or stamping out irregular peasant rhythms in the latter, the NOI musicians sounded great. This year’s chief strength appears to have been the violins, which could both make a melody sing with splendid tone and ensemble and play with great delicacy in accompaniment; their quiet trills in the opening of the Rite startled with their intensity and concentration. The horns could hit tricky melodic passages and, when called for, let loose with full-on blasts of sound. The winds did not sound quite as secure, but there were still many lovely solos from that quarter, and the percussion was on point the whole night, integrated and effective in the Brahms, relentless in the Stravinsky. And they played with infectious enthusiasm, which counts for a whole lot.

Rizzi (who is not the guy from “The Godfather,” so put that out of your mind) obviously deserves a lot of credit for coaching the musicians to make such satisfying sounds, including balancing the orchestra so well that all this fine playing could be heard clearly even in busy ensemble passages. Never was this more obvious than in the first movement of Brahms’ second symphony, in which various supporting phrases contrast with broad melodies, ensuring that the movement’s pacific mood does not become somnolescent. At least normally. For Rizzi seemed obsessed with playing every single melody and melodic fragment in this movement with as much legato as possible, always connecting notes into little arcs and curves to the point that it sounded fussy and monotonous, and kind of like watching someone else use a Spirograph.

The middle movements came off best. In the second, Rizzi shaped the melodies more conventionally, allowing the listener to simply enjoy the burnished sounds from the NOIers, with the horns, winds, and strings making shifts in harmonic patterns sound as natural as breathing or as dramatic as anything you’ve heard. In the third movement, Rizzi’s measured pace and sprightly rhythms let Brahms’ occasional witticisms sound their funniest, and the orchestra played with both energy and delicacy to make the movement bustle merrily along.

Rizzi took the fourth movement much faster than normal, faster than this talented group could actually play it. I have never conducted an orchestra, but the obvious solution there would have been to dial it back a bit. Nevertheless, their scrambling after Rizzi’s baton was endearing, like watching the Coyote in a high-speed, slightly destructive chase with the Road Runner. (Meep meep!)

The Rite of Spring, following intermission, also moved fast; Rizzi pushed some sections so hard that their melodies were almost unrecognizable. But this time the orchestra had the full measure of the tempi. The problem here was that somewhere between conductor and orchestra the earthiness of the score went missing. You rarely got the sense of a ritual to be both respected and feared, or the frenzy that resulted from the ritual’s enactment; the performance was precise and high-impact but bloodless, like watching a boxer work a speed bag or a wide receiver run a cone drill.  Only in the final Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One) section did something primal start to emerge. I never thought the Rite could sound like this, especially from an orchestra full of young people, whose access to their baser emotions is typically more direct than that of their elders, but there you go.

So it turned out I wished I had gone to a different NOI concert, but that doesn’t change the fact that the NOI is the best orchestral deal in town (every ticket is $27) each year for the month of June. Hope to see you there next year.

Updated to add Other Person’s Perspective: Anne Midgette. She and I heard many of the same things but interpreted them differently, which is why it’s good to have multiple critics criticking (cricketing?) at concerts.

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