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Thomas Sleeper has conducted some fine concerts with the University of Miami’s Frost Symphony Orchestra over the past two decades but Saturday evening’s program at Gusman Concert Hall proved one of his most compelling events to date. Two premieres complemented a pair of orchestral standards, displaying Sleeper’s versatility and unique ability to inspire and draw strong performances from his student players.
The premiere of Elegy, Soliloquy and Finale for flute and strings by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich marked a special project for Sleeper. The conductor put together a consortium of ten university music schools and conservatories to join Frost in commissioning the score. Less edgy than some of Zwilich’s other works, the piece is an outstanding addition to the flute repertoire and proved a fine showcase for Frost faculty member Trudy Kane.
Zwilich, a Miami native and Pulitzer Prize winner, has conceived a lyrical and rhapsodic rumination that exploits the solo instrument’s colors and range. The opening thematic material is haunting, with the strings providing a rich and vibrant undercurrent to the flute’s elegiac fragments. There is greater darkness and emotional depth in the Soliloquy as Zwilich floats the flute in its highest register over repeated orchestral chords. Ascending string lines introduce angular flute figurations in the final section. Echoes of jazz add bite and spice to Zwilich’s clever rhythms. The score is masterfully conceived, with the beautiful string writing complementing the whirling solo lines.
Kane was totally equal to the score’s demands. Her tone was consistently pure and sweet, even in the instrument’s highest reaches. She tossed off the pyrotechnics with panache and captured the incisive rhythms of the epilogue with the flair of a born jazz player. Sleeper drew a rich sonority and nimble rhythmic shifts from the excellent players. Zwilich, Kane and Sleeper were awarded an enthusiastic and well-deserved ovation.
Zwilich’s fine score was not the only contemporary work on the program. The American premiere of Symphonic Frescos by Rashid Kalimulin afforded a rare opportunity to hear the work of a composer from Tatarstan, part of Russia’s Volga region.
The three-movement suite is scored for large orchestra with full brass and percussion batteries. An opening harp glissando and mallet percussion introduce a romantic theme but crashing brass climaxes precede the militaristic second movement. After much hard-driving, tempestuous music in the third movement, dirge-like string passages bring a final section highlighting the solo flute and a return to the mood of the score’s opening. Atmospheric and skillfully orchestrated, Kalimulin’s work proved a crowd pleaser and gave the Frost players a real workout.
Sleeper’s ability to bring fresh life to familiar music was on full display in masterpieces by Tchaikovsky and Elgar. He captured the long arc of Tchakovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, never allowing the score to become episodic and bringing forth often-obscured wind details. The slow tempo of the opening wind melody suggested the music’s Russian liturgical roots and the battle music was played with gutsy intensity.
Elgar’s Enigma Variations found Sleeper alert to the score’s contrasting moods from playfulness to lyrical solemnity. “Nimrod” was appropriately the performance’s fulcrum, Sleeper luxuriating in the string sonority and capturing both the grandeur and sadness of this heartfelt music. Fast sections were bright and zesty, and fine solo work by first chairs in all sections highlighted a brilliant performance by the orchestra.
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