Sleeper, Frost Symphony bring character, intensity to 20th-century program

By Lawrence Budmen

Thomas Sleeper conducted the Frost Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Gusman Concert Hall.

Thomas Sleeper conducted the Frost Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Gusman Concert Hall.

The history of symphonic music abounds with works that were once considered shocking but have taken their rightful place in the standard orchestral canon: Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps and the symphonies of Gustav Mahler to name a  few. 

Bela Bartok’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin is another work that has graduated into the repertoire after initial public and critical rejection. Thomas Sleeper conducted the Frost Symphony Orchestra in a brilliant performance of Bartok’s iconic work Friday night at Gusman Concert Hall. (The concert was rescheduled from September due to Hurricane Irma.)

The original 1926 ballet was considered shocking and morally indecent for its depiction of three derelicts and a young girl attracting men supposedly for a romantic tryst but actually to assault and rob the victims. Bartok’s music was no less challenging. This is not the more listener-friendly Bartok of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta or Concerto for Orchestra. Bartok’s score blazes with tart dissonance and jagged rhythms and still packs a jolt. 

The ballet score served as an impressive display of the student musicians’ considerable talents. With nine double basses at stage right and percussion divided between the left and right rear of the stage, the score’s rumbling  undertones were vividly projected. 

Sleeper did not attempt to smooth over the music’s primitive rough edges. The opening brass outburst was given with intense force. Strings were unified and precise with the violas notably rich and full in tone. Claire Grellier’s burnished clarinet solos traced the winding lines of Bartok’s folk-infused modernism with agility. Sleeper drew real luster from the strings during brief contrasting moments of Hungarian languor and the whipcrack percussion had appropriately crashing impact in climaxes.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is one of the masterpieces of 20th-century orchestral literature. Sleeper’s deliberately paced performance accumulated momentum while maintaining an aura of tension across the work’s four movements. 

He did not overplay the opening chords and details emerged with striking clarity. The basses and two harps were clearly audible beneath the violins’ initial theme. Robert Tindle’s piano came rumbling out of the orchestral fabric leading to the ominous martial theme which was given hard thrust. Sleeper captured the sardonic elements of the scherzo with the faux elegance of Miclen LaiPang’s violin solo having just the right sarcastic tone.

The third movement Largo  probes the depths of the Russian soul. Sleeper’s broadly paced reading allowed the thematic strands to gather strength. The opening string passages were both beautiful and bleak and the big climax was daunting in sheer power. Without pause, Sleeper commenced a full-tilt reading of the finale. While the performance lacked the extra sheen of a major professional orchestra or the New World Symphony on its best nights, it would be difficult to imagine a better traversal of this demanding music by a college ensemble.

Associate conductor Alexander Magalong opened the program with a lively, well played performance of the Overture to Bernstein’s Candide that would have benefited from greater dynamic variety. Prior to the concert, Sleeper presented the Frost Symphony Music Educator Award to Lee Stone, a teacher at Coral Reef High School.

Thomas Sleeper conducts the Frost Symphony Orchestra in Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 2 and Cimarosa’s Concerto for Two Flutes with soloists Sir James and Jeanne Galway 8 p.m. October 27 at the Arsht Center in Miami.



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Sat Oct 7, 2017
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