“Orchestras are not only a beautiful museum, but a mirror of the present,” conductor JoAnn Falletta told me over the phone four years ago, when she was scheduled to guest-conduct the Orlando Philharmonic for a program that included the world premiere of young Florida composer John Callahan’s Pulsar. “It’s important to understand that music is growing and developing all the time.” As of then, the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony had introduced more than 400 works by American composers, including more than 100 world premieres.
But last night’s concert at the Bob Carr didn’t reflect this admirable – and necessary – commitment to the music of the present, despite a few great achievements in all three of the pieces programmed.
There were truly artistic moments in the performance of Brahms’ ultra-conservative Symphony No. 2, cast in a four-movement mold: the serene flute counter-melody to the lilting ‘Lullaby’ theme on the strings, and sonorous and lush timpani-capped crescendos in the first movement; penetrating horn lines in the Adagio; and a soulful, gently articulated clarinet response to the first tutti in the finale. Falletta decorated her Brahms with strong dynamic contrasts in that movement – her left arm mirroring the beat of the baton for greater emphasis – and led the symphony inexorably to its raucous ending, joined – disruptively so – by applause during the last few measures.
The high point of the evening was Michael Ludwig’s performance of the Glazunov Violin Concerto, a highly expressive early 20th century piece whose movements flow uninterrupted. Ludwig boasts a confident posture and technique, which translates to a superior tone quality. His solo lines were mostly heartfelt in the high-register tremolos. But in the rondo section that follows the cadenza, the brass and strings were slightly unbalanced in relation to each other, and there were some odd trumpet warbles.
With a dreamy backdrop of harps and superb woodwind work, Ibert’s Escales conjures an impressionist mood; Falletta roused the Orlando Phil to a solid climax. The expanded percussion section was effective, although the rattling castanets were tacky. Overall, and despite its strongest qualities, the piece pales in comparison to masterpieces by other French composer of the era, like Debussy and Ravel, the latter of whom the Orlando Phil are already highlighting in several programs throughout the current season.
At 15 minutes, Escales should have been nixed in favor of a short concert-opening contemporary piece – a wasted opportunity. Why not follow up last November’s great performance of young maverick Andrew Norman’s The Great Swiftness with an equally compelling modern piece? Every minute onstage, every measure, counts.
“It’s an obligation too for us to give a voice to our own artists,” Falletta told me next during that 2012 call. She’s hailed as “a champion of American symphonic music,” in the very first sentence of her bio in the program. Maybe next time we’ll hear some of it.
A lingering afterthought is that maybe orchestras across the board should think about doing away with the old tradition of handing a bouquet to (female) soloists or guest conductors at the end of the concert, while still onstage. More than anything, the token of appreciation seems a nuisance to the recipient, and a challenge for where to gracefully put it down or who to hand it to.
To read a review of Falletta’s 2012 performance with the Orlando Philharmonic, click here.
To read more recent Orlando Philharmonic reviews and articles, click here.
To read more about JoAnn Falletta, click here.