Monday, February 05, 2007

The Philharmonic Performs Sibelius

[Cross-posted from I'm going to cross-post all online-only reviews here because, heck, why not?]

The Colorado Springs Philharmonic’s program this weekend [January 24-25] is a little like the story of Goldilocks: There’s plenty of sound but not enough music in Glen Cortese’s “Garden of the Gods,” and plenty of music but not enough sound in Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”

But in Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5, the philharmonic and conductor Lawrence Leighton Smith got it just right on Saturday night.

Cortese — Smith’s first conducting student — was on hand to conduct the premier of “Garden of the Gods.” While the piece is appealing, it never gets far away enough from its roots in Aaron Copland to be really interesting. Like Copland, Cortese is most convincing in slow music like this piece’s outer sections. These convey a solemn, spiritual mood. The fast middle section sounds like the accompaniment to a movie chase scene.

“Garden of the Gods” makes much of its effect through its brilliant orchestration. The orchestra glitters and shimmers, and there’s always a sense of depth and space in the sound. Cortese is a professional conductor, and has the sort of instrumental knowledge that few outside his profession possess.

Cortese dedicated the piece to Smith and the philharmonic, and the orchestra rewarded his gesture with a beautifully polished performance. Though Cortese’s ear for instrumental balances is excellent, he lacks his teacher’s grasp of large structures: “Garden of the Gods” eventually lost momentum due to being too loud for too long, and by the end, I just wanted the orchestra to stop yelling at me.

Ideally, Vivaldi’s “The Seasons” — a set of four short violin concertos — would be heard in a smaller hall than the Pikes Peak Center. Not only is the string orchestra small, but Vivaldi uses it sparingly. The thin sound gradually numbed the ear.

Fortunately, soloist Michael Hanson’s tone is large enough to fill the space, and silky enough to keep a listener’s attention.

While there was nothing noticeably lacking in the first two concertos, Hanson improved as he warmed up; his rhythms became snappier and the phrases more artfully shaped. The final concerto — “Winter” — was the best of all, earning Hanson an enthusiastic standing ovation from the large audience.

The orchestra performed with propulsive sense of rhythm and about as wide a dynamic range as you could get from such a small ensemble.

Sibelius may be the composer most shaped by his homeland’s climate. The Finnish composer’s music is quintessentially arctic, with a brooding quality that reflects the country’s endless and frigid winter nights.

That’s most apparent in the second of this symphony’s three movements. It’s poised somewhere between a slow, courtly dance and an obsession.

But there’s plenty of brooding in the outer movements as well, where everything is not just thought out, but often over-thought out. Part of this symphony’s character stems from the audible conflict between its composer’s natural talent and his self-doubts. Though the symphony begins in a tranquil mood and ends in brassy triumph, the road between is anything but smooth.

Even Sibelius’ most coherent pieces contain sphinx-like moments when it’s just hard to figure out what he’s trying to say. What made this performance so remarkable was how few such moments it contained, because Smith had such a firm grasp of the architecture: If we weren’t always quite sure where we were, there was never any doubt where we were going.

Highlights included Clark Wilson in the first movement’s eerie bassoon solo, and the entire string section in the short, gasping phrases that contribute so much to the symphony’s enigmatic mood.

The performance was thrilling, but the faultless overall shape and color couldn’t hide signs that the symphony was under-rehearsed — probably in deference to Cortese’s piece. There were more problems of intonation than is usual for the philharmonic.


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