Florida Symphony makes impressive debut in mixed program

By Lawrence A. Johnson

 Since taking over as Concert Association of Florida CEO from founder and long-time guiding light Judy Drucker, Al Milano’s tenure has been most visible on two fronts: adding pop and crossover events to the historically classical-centered organization and creating a new local orchestra, the Florida Symphony, as house ensemble for visiting artists.

 Both of those initiatives came together Saturday night at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall with the debut of the Florida Symphony in a hybrid program featuring jazz artist Michel Camilo performing his own Piano Concerto.

 After announcing the Florida Symphony project as a major component of the new-look Concert Association earlier this year, Milano cut back drastically on the number of its dates after a tepid reaction from Broward Center subscribers.

 But the idea to formalize a flexible orchestra of top local players remains a good one — particularly in Fort Lauderdale, where Broward Center management has long shown indifference to providing dates for classical presenters.  (With the news last week that Broward Center CEO Mark Nerenhausen is departing for a new post in Dallas, let’s hope that his successor shows a greater willingness to balance Broadway shows with the kind of classical events that the Broward Center was built for in the first place.)

Even with a dizzyingly varied program, the Florida Symphony gave a strong, impressive showing in its debut under music director, Jose Antonio Molina.  Questions remain, namely how to ensure artistic stability with such a mutable roster, particularly with the same contractor, Alfredo Oliva, also handling personnel for Florida Grand Opera’s orchestra this season. In fact, so many of the FGO principal players were on stage Saturday night in Miami as the Florida Symphony, one can only wonder who was in the pit at the final Traviata performance in Broward at the same time.

 Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 was wisely moved to the first half of the program Saturday, and, with its considerable demands on all sections, made a worthy calling card for the new orchestra’s players.

 The Finnish composer’s first essay in the genre is more Russian and Late Romantic in style than his later, more personal and austere symphonies. Molina certainly brought out the drama and big-boned lyricism.  The Dominican conductor is a flamboyant presence, with hair a-wave and much foot stamping on the podium. Molina elicited polished playing with clarion trumpets and fine woodwind contributions, particularly Paul Green who lifted an atmospheric clarinet solo in the opening bars. The strings gave a rich, buoyancy to the lyrical moments, with the final movement’s soaring theme making the requisite exhilarating impact.

 Less present under Molina’s emphatic direction were the score’s more subtle elements, Scandinavian coloring and mystery. Still, it made for an impressive debut by the orchestra, and you have the chance to catch the Sibelius again at the Florida Symphony program with cellist Alisa Weilerstein at the Broward Center Dec. 17th.

 Michel Camilo was the advertised draw Saturday though the Dominican pianist is little known outside of Latin jazz circles. He premiered his Piano Concerto a decade ago under Leonard Slatkin in Washington, later recording the work as well.

 Camilo has impressive keyboard chops and his staccato style is able to blaze through a  bewildering number of notes at warp speed. The three-movement concerto is clearly designed as a personal showpiece and Camilo put on a daunting display of pyrotechnics with lightning fistfuls of notes and blistering tempos.

 Yet anyone looking for something more substantial than superficial bravura in this concerto will search in vain. More jazz-classical hybrids have appeared in the last half-century than one can count, but still no one besides Gershwin—and to a lesser extent, Bernstein— has been able to convincingly merge the two genres in a way that doesn’t over-inflate jazz and materially dilute classical.

 Exciting as Camilo’s virtuosity was, his playing was so fast, the music was largely a blur. What remained alternated between isolated keyboard runs and nocturnal light-jazz noodling that sounded like a third-rate film score. This being Miami, of course, where empty, showy glitter is the norm, the audience loved it. Under his compatriot Molina, the Florida Symphony gave full-tilt support to their soloist.

 Rather than the originally advertised four-movement Estancia Suite, Saturday’s concert gave us just the concluding Malambo. Just as well considering the packed program, as Ginastera’s frenzied dance seemed to get the short end of rehearsals with the percussion-heavy balances covering the winds and brass.

 Jose Antonio Molina and the Florida Symphony will repeats Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 at 8 p.m. Dec. 17 at the Broward Center  on a program with the Dvorak Cello Concerto performed by Alisa Weilerstein. www.concertfla.org.

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “Florida Symphony makes impressive debut in mixed program”

  1. Posted Dec 09, 2008 at 9:51 am by Redondo Music

    Mr. Camilo provides the following note in the sincere hope that Mr. Johnson will better understand the spirit of his piano concerto:

    “The music I compose reflects my own life. My purpose is to write music of today, music that is inspired by the passion of change and the energy of our times. This work combines elements of all three of my musical worlds: jazz, classical and Afro-Caribbean. It is based on some of the mystery, folklore, rhythms and mythology of the African culture in the Americas, but at the same time I wanted to give all these elements a fresh character by incorporating jazz harmonies and an extended classical form, and by translating some of the rhythmic patterns into melodic textures using the piano as well as the different sections of the orchestra as percussion instruments.

    The first movement is a journey through various Afro-Caribbean and jazz landscapes inspired by my youth in the Dominican Republic. These are reflected in the constantly changing textures, alternating, reflecting moods with high energy and polyrhythmic ideas which demand precise ensemble work from both soloist and orchestra.

    The second movement is a slow-moving but intense romantic ballad full of hope and wonderful memories, with a singing piano line, sustained textures and expressive lyrical improvisational passages.

    The final movement is full of energy and vitality, combining modern contemporary influences with a jazz motif. The mood reaches a climax as these two concepts encounter each other in various musical settings. It is a musical encounter with the city I came to for study and work, New York.”

  2. Posted Dec 11, 2008 at 9:43 pm by rosapristinanomine

    I was thrilled by Michel Camilo’s performance last Saturday.
    Of course this concerto is a personal showpiece – were not Rachmaninoff’s or Prokofiev’s or Shostakovich’s the same, not to mention the piano concertos of Mozart or Beethoven?
    Camilo has a distinct style and although he had a classical upbringing, he is not at all a “classical” pianist. With all respect, I find it unfair to judge his playing by “classical” standards.
    I would like to mention the fantastic encore with which the pianist ended the concert, his signature piece “Caribe”, a series of variations that he played with flair and beautifully nuanced – at least, I thought so.

  3. Posted Dec 12, 2008 at 2:52 am by Daniel

    Interesting that the above review was published in the Miami Herald Dec 8 with one sentence carefully removed. Guess which one … yep: “This being Miami, of course, where empty, showy glitter is the norm, the audience loved it.”

  4. Posted Dec 23, 2008 at 3:30 pm by Pretentious Free Zone

    What a bunch of arts gobbledegook. If classical music was such an important part of performing arts programming, patrons would be flocking to these concerts and symphony orchestras would be thriving. Lawrence Johnson continues to preach to the choir, a choir that is rapidly shrinking because of the failure of classical music presenters to connect with audiences in a meaningful way. Audiences vote with their ticket purchases.

Leave a Comment

Sun Dec 7, 2008
at 1:56 pm