- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 25, 2006

Guest conductor Eri Klas, artistic director of the Tallinn Philharmonic in Estonia, led an orchestra of talented young musicians Saturday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in an intriguing concert, highlighting Richard Strauss‘“Don Quixote,” which featured Yumi Kendall, associate principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, as chief soloist.

Also featured were performances of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony,” Op. 25 and Paul Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.”

The program was the last of three symphony concerts presented this month as part of the 19th season of the National Orchestral Institute (NOI). Initiated by the University of Maryland’s School of Music in 1988, NOI brings many of the nation’s top university music students to the College Park campus each summer to study with faculty, artists in residence and acclaimed guest conductors. Miss Kendall is an alumna of the program, whose past participants are frequently engaged professionally by key symphonic ensembles across the United States.

Saturday’s program opened with a sprightly if occasionally uneven performance of Prokofiev’s enduringly popular Symphony No. 1 in D major, usually known by its nickname, the “Classical Symphony.” Although better known as a Romantic modernist, Prokofiev’s first symphony is clearly neoclassical, hearkening back to the moods and structures prevalent in the time of Mozart and Haydn. Just 15 minutes in duration, the symphony frames two occasionally contemplative movements between its frantic and playful outer movements.

It was the outer movements that gave the NOI orchestra a bit of trouble on Saturday. There was never a problem with tempo, speed or accuracy, but the interplay among orchestra sections, which toss the melodic line back and forth, was often lost. On the other hand, the Larghetto, the work’s second movement, was a marvel of balance and sensitivity, highlighting numerous mini-solos by section principals.

Much more impressive, though, was the orchestra’s performance of Mr. Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis.” One of the 20th century’s finest composers, Mr. Hindemith’s music doesn’t appear on programs as frequently as it once did, which is most unfortunate. Essentially variations on themes of early Romantic composer Carl Maria von Weber, the four-movement work is vigorous, inventive and exciting, featuring once again numerous difficult solo passages for the orchestra’s principal players, including a shimmering East Asian inspired percussion riff that seemed quite ahead of its time when the work premiered in New York in 1944. The orchestra rose to Mr. Hindemith’s challenges in a crisp, brilliant, enthusiastic performance that brought the work to pulsating life. It was easily the high point of the concert, from a musical standpoint.

Somewhat less successful was the final work on the program, Richard Strauss’ exquisite tone poem disguised as a cello concerto and titled “Don Quixote.” Choosing some of the best-known adventures from Cervantes’ immortal work, Strauss orchestrated them brilliantly. These include the Don’s imaginary flight through the air, depicted by a wind machine, as well as the composer’s bizarrely creative evocation in the brass section of our hero’s brave attack on a flock of sheep — as startling today as it must have been in the work’s 1898 premiere.

The orchestra generally played with great feeling, highlighted by its superb viola and bass clarinet soloists. Miss Kendall also was outstanding, particularly effective when depicting the Don’s final moments. But the ensemble as a whole lacked the deeply burnished sonority that Strauss’ music requires. In fairness, though, it takes some time for professional ensembles to achieve this level of excellence — a level many of these fine young musicians are clearly well on their way to achieving.



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