Carrying On Tradition: The National Festival Orchestra at the University of Maryland, June 21, 2014

I’ve been attending National Orchestral Institute and Festival concerts at the University of Maryland since I was in high school, when the happening was just the National Orchestral Institute and its students performed collectively as the NOI Philharmonic. Though the musicians at NOI change every year, Saturday’s National Festival Orchestra concert, in which the assembled young people performed under the baton of Rochester Philharmonic conductor laureate Christopher Seaman, evinced the same virtues that drew me to the festival when I was young: Top-notch orchestral playing, crackling with excitement one hears only sometimes at professional symphony concerts, for rock-bottom prices – $25 for any seat in Dekelbaum Hall, in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

Christopher Seaman.

Christopher Seaman.

Saturday night’s program of music by Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, and Gustav Holst provided a lot of opportunities for Seaman and the orchestra to wallow in sound or emotion. Skipping most of those, Seaman set flowing tempi and rarely slowed things down, even noticeably abbreviating the typical pauses between movements. Yet these were full-hearted readings nonetheless, thanks to the gorgeous sounds the orchestra made and the excitement that informed the playing.

The antics of Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” have always been lost on me, I confess; I listen to hear that the fiendish horn solo comes off well and then, despite my best efforts, zone out. Here said solo did come off well (as did the woodwind pratfalls that accompany it), but Seaman’s brisk tempi allowed me to actually hear the humor of the various episodes. Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes,” drawn from the opera “Peter Grimes,” demand more atmospheric playing, which they received: you could almost hear the waves lapping on the shore in the string figures and smell the salt tang in the thin air, limned by the winds, during the “Dawn” interlude, while the storm interlude crashed all the more powerfully for holding something in reserve until a big climax.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra put on quite a fine performance of Holst’s suite “The Planets” a few months ago, and if you sat me down with recordings of the National Festival Orchestra’s rendition and the BSO’s, I’m not sure I could pick out the professional versus the nonprofessional orchestra. The Natty Festivians had a few moments where the percussion got out of sync with the rest of the orchestra, and a couple times one member of the brass hit the wrong repeated note for a couple measures, but that was it for the demerits. In the students’ favor: Massive, snarling low brass, lower strings that made an impenetrable shelf of sound when called for, sweet-toned upper strings, and all-around excellent wind playing. The 5/4 tread of “Mars” felt impersonal and relentless as it should, quick and steady on Saturday, and the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”-esque climax of “Uranus” felt inevitable thanks to similar rhythmic intensity. “Mercury,” where the melody flits among sections of the orchestra, sounded like a continuous thought thanks to the careful coordination of Seaman and his players. The heart of the work for me, though, was the noble theme in the middle of “Jupiter,” played by the National Festival Orchestra with a simplicity and eloquence that conveyed deep emotion without digging for it. A tough trick to pull off, but Seaman and the orchestra did it.

There’s one more National Festival Orchestra show this month, next Saturday at 8 pm, in which Leonard Slatkin will conduct Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and some other stuff. Twenty-five bucks!

Other People’s Perspectives: Robert Battey

WHEN I WAS YOUNG…

I certainly would not have thought of conductorly restraint as something to which one should aspire. I wanted everything to be all emphasis all the time. It appears that after having eagerly sought out such approaches, I am now ready for balance and restraint to have the fore. I was feeling so nostalgic driving home from the concert and thinking about piloting my parents’ Ford Taurus station wagon to the terrible acoustics at Tawes Hall to hear a bunch of kids who were actually a bit older than me play orchestral instruments better than I could do anything, and it really gave me some perspective. It’s time to pur away childish things, For example, in this review…

I DIDN’T EVEN MAKE THE OBVIOUS JOKES ABOUT THE CONDUCTOR’S NAME

You know what jokes I’m talking about. Don’t lie. (I can put away childish things but cannot pretend that they don’t exist, apparently.)

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