Boca Symphonia wraps season with guest conductor and new concerto

By Alan Becker

The Boca Raton Symphonia closed its season Sunday at the Saint Andrew’s School with a contemporary Violin Concerto by Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973), composer-in-residence of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, and associate professor of music at Towson University in Maryland.   

Leshnoff’s five-movement concerto takes as its inspiration a a Holocaust survivor’s story relating how SS guards forced concentration camp inmates to sing Nazi propaganda songs as they worked. These same forced laborers would frequently insert prayers into the songs as a protest. Although Leshnoff does not quote any of these songs directly in this work, completed in 2007, he seeks to capture the mood by incorporating prayerful motifs.

Leshnoff’s Concerto is clearly in the mainstream of today’s romantic revival. The composer spoke briefly about the major motif of the work, and his lyrical approach to the composition. He even cited Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto as an example of the kind of writing he tried to emulate. This was certainly no Tchaikovsky Concerto.  Its rhythmic passagework seems more of a piece with Walton or Prokofiev without ever attaining their heights. The lyricism was not of the heart-tugging kind, but it went down easily, and without tears. Despite the inspiration there was no Judaic feel to the music, and certainly no pseudo-Bloch.

The Concerto found a fine interpreter  in Charles Wetherbee, who has also recorded the work for the Naxos label. Guest conductor Laura Jackson held the orchestra in check in order to allow Wetherbee to cut through some of the more densely scored passages. The concerto was structured well, and did not overstay its welcome, even if it plumbed few depths, and offered little to challenge the listener. The Boca audience accepted the music with reasonable enthusiasm.

Respighi’s Three Botticeli Pictures offered some lovely refined melodies plus imaginative orchestration. It was worlds away from the larger-than-life gestures of his Roman cycle, and gave the orchestra many solo opportunities. Concertmaster Misha Vitenson played his prominent part with tonal warmth and melting beauty.

Jackson and the orchestra provided a major bonus in Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun. It was an inspired performance and one in which every detail came to the fore without giving the impression of being overly analytical. It’s not too difficult to see the Boca ensemble as the true successor of the Florida Philharmonic as the level of professionalism almost made up for the pared-down strings in all but the weightiest music.

Beethoven’s much-performed Symphony No. 5 was played with spirit and gusto, if not with the ultimate in cathartic power the composer built into his music. The gruffness and anger were replaced with a polite but dramatic sound and speeds slightly faster than usual.  It left one satisfied, but not overwhelmed or exhausted by the experience. J ackson, former assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, directs with precise movements, and showed total control and confidence in handling the Boca musicians.

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Mon Apr 20, 2009
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