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Symphony celebrates love, longing

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The Modesto Symphony's opening concert of this 75th season on Friday night celebrated the human spirit with music of youth and love composed by Mendelssohn, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky.

The overture and incidental music to Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" bubbled with vitality and magic, and bore no earmarks of "juvenilia" that one might expect from a piece written when the composer was only 17.

The whole composition was rife with technical challenges any musician will tell you that Mendelssohn requires some of the hardest tricks of any composer, most notably the ability to play hundreds of very quick notes with elfin lightness. Successful execution of this type of passage is at least twice as difficult as playing the same notes loud and fast.

The symphony successfully conveyed the spirit of this magical Mendelssohn sound in the overture and elsewhere, though there were several moments of ensemble difficulty in the exposed violin passages.

The winds likewise gave the right feel in this work, but the tuning in certain chords was not completely accurate, and tended to distract momentarily from the fascinating world the composer intended to create.

Still, there were many beautifully wrought passages, particularly the horn solo in the Notturno, which was rendered with a pure, penetrating tone and lovely phrasing.

The concert's second half featured pianist Christopher O'Riley, well-known to many as the host of NPR's "From the Top." He joined the symphony in the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 2, another piece that exuded sprightly youthfulness.

Mr. O'Riley brought a great deal of energy to his performance, to which the audience obviously responded positively and grate-fully.

However, I was troubled by the lack of basic rhythmic integrity. It is one thing to interpret a piece such as the Shostakovich with devil-may-care, breakneck speed; it is another just to lose control of the tempo.

By the end of the performance, I was disappointed to conclude that Mr. O'Riley was simply rushing the tempo to the point of completely undermining the character of the outer movements.

It isn't possible to convey the charm of the first movement or the wacky shifts in meter of the last movement if the basic pulse wanders, and if the speed makes these things incomprehensible.

This type of problem, which frequently plagues student performances, only rarely shows up in a performance by an artist with Mr. O'Riley's professional profile.

Still, the middle movement showed signs of the type of artistic maturity we would expect from him, and I suspect he is capable in general of much more satisfying performances than what we heard this weekend in the concerto.

The concert concluded with a very rewarding performance of the fantasy-overture to Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet." All sections of the ensemble were on top of their game, offering us all of the vivid vistas of the ultraromantic orchestra.

The passion of Romeo and Juliet was palpable in this rendition, from the fiery and furious unison string passages to the brass section's triple forte outbursts.

The winds provided delicate and well-balanced chords in the hymnlike conclusion, rounding out the full range of pathos and longing in this music.

Maestro Darryl One and the orchestra received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of this performance.

Stephen Thomas is chairman of the Department of Music at California State University, Stanislaus.

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©2004 The Modesto Bee. All Rights Reserved.

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