Philharmonia program demands fine-tuning

The program of tonight’s Yale Philharmonia concert might be properly characterized as “Three Cuties and a Shostakovich.” Guest conductor Anshel Brunislow will lead the orchestra through some of the most adorable pieces Russian composers have conspired to create: Kabalevsky’s “Overture to Colas Breugnon,” Mussorgsky’s “Introduction to Khovantchina,” and Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini.” Though the first symphony of Shostakovich will balance the effect to a degree, the tone of this concert will be sweet and perky to a fault.

Mr. Brunislow, former director of the Dallas Symphony, has a technique that appears easy and unaffected, but at times unclear. He seems to fall prey to the age-old problem of all guest conductors — a lack of connection with the orchestra. The Philharmonia, an ensemble of students from the Yale School of Music, each of high individual levels of talent and skill, perform well within their sections, but lack the usual cohesion provided by their resident conductor, Lawrence Smith. The sections converse throughout the program as separate individuals, each with a slightly differing point of view.

Despite any doubts of program choice or questionable unity, the undeniable excellence of some of the individual players make the concert worth some attention. In each piece, the combination of precision and delicacy of timing in the percussion section keeps forward motion alive and interesting. The menacing timpani licks in the Shostakovich are surely a highpoint in the program. The section plays with obvious attention to the larger orchestral phrase. Likewise the expressive wind solos (particularly some unexpectedly pleasing piccolo playing) create points of interest amid the sea of Russian sweet cream.

The performance of the strings suffers most from the lack of consistent musical vision. In trickier passages the violins even faltered in their intonation. The answers to the aesthetic questions asked by this program receive different answers among the principal string players. The concertmaster, though she clearly attempts to add “shmaltz” to her performance, comes off as overly technical and lacking in either sentimentality or irony in her solo passages. The principal cellist performs with ample shmaltz, but when contrasted by the violins, this seems inappropriate. The lower strings fare better in general, especially in the Mussorgsky, where the opening theme transition from viola to flute, a large distance in terms of instrumental color is achieved seamlessly by the two sections.

So if you’re in the mood for some menacing timpani, impish piccolo, spunky harp, or lyrical viola, this evening’s entertainment is sure to please. If your quest is perfect horn intonation, soaring violin lines, or thought provoking Russian compositions, I suggest you visit the Yale Music Library and ask for the Rostropovich recording of the first Shostakovich cello concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra (CD 1012 S559 no. 1 O3).

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