Young conductor, Frost orchestra triumph over potential disaster, brilliantly

By David Fleshler

Zoe Zeniodi

Zoe Zeniodi

A conductor must be ready for any emergency — a soloist who suffers a memory lapse, a hacking fit in the audience during that soft opening passage, a standing ovation after the third movement of a four movement work.

When Zoe Zeniodi prepared to conduct a difficult program Saturday in partial fulfillment of the requirements for her doctorate at the University of Miami, word came of a challenging new development: The soprano, Leilah Dione Ezra, called in sick. And there was no back-up. This would have appeared to rule out half the Gusman Hall program, Frank Ticheli’s An American Dream, a set of seven songs for soprano and orchestra.

But the performance of the Ticheli work went ahead without the soloist, and Zeniodi coolly rose to the occasion, drawing stupendous playing from the students of the university’s Frost Symphony Orchestra.

This highly accessible 1998 work portrays the anxieties and hopes of late 20th century America through a woman’s dreams, insomnia and awakening. Ticheli, professor of composition at the University of Southern California,¬†uses tonality and atonality, an array of orchestral colors and lyric passages leavened by ominous, dissonant harmonies to bring out the sensibilities of the country at the end of the century.

Zeniodi drew maximum tension from the opening sequences, bringing the quiet dreamlike section to a great climax. The orchestra played brilliantly. Dramatic runs in the strings over mysterious harmonies in wind and brass came off flawlessly. The jazzy third song was energetic and well phrased. Although it’s difficult to assess the work without the soprano, the orchestra and conductor did their jobs well.

Shostakovich’s Ballet Suite No. 1 is an arrangement of dances, all but one taken from his 1935 ballet The Bright Stream, which had displeased Stalin by taking a frivolous approach to the heroic subject of life on a collective farm. The music is light — a wistful waltz, rambunctious dance movements — at time almost manic, humorous with less of the bitterness and sarcasm that would mark the composer’s later works.

Zeniodi drew some of the best playing the student orchestra has ever produced. Ensemble playing was knife-edge precise. Although this isn’t particularly deep music, it’s difficult to play, with lots of fast passages and transparent textures that would mercilessly expose mistakes.

Yet there was nothing stiff or careful about the playing. The orchestra played with energy and appeared to be having fun with Shostakovich’s strange look at the lighter side of collective agriculture. The opening waltz was well-phrased, and the Romance played with rich textures but no murkiness. The Polka came off with humor and energy, but not a trace of the oafishness this sort of music can produce.

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “Young conductor, Frost orchestra triumph over potential disaster, brilliantly”

  1. Posted Nov 23, 2009 at 8:18 am by Rick Sleeper


  2. Posted Nov 23, 2009 at 10:30 am by JACK SLEEPER

    What a great review. Thank you.

  3. Posted Nov 23, 2009 at 4:35 pm by Connie James

    Hi Zoe…….You are absolutely incredible!!!!!!!!!Miss you sooooooo much. We’re all very proud of you….you’re making your mark in the classical world, and on the way to becoming world renowned. Love C.

  4. Posted Dec 01, 2009 at 1:26 pm by Maria Letona

    Thank you for a great review, Zoe definitely has a bright future!

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Sun Nov 22, 2009
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