Frost Symphony scales the heights impressively with Bruckner

By Lawrence Budmen

Thomas Sleeper led the Frost Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner's Symphony No. 9 Sunday at Gusman Concert Hall.

A challenging program of works by Stravinsky and Bruckner tested the artistic mettle of the University of Miami’s Frost Symphony Orchestra Sunday afternoon at Gusman Concert Hall. That the music-making often transcended the student level of the ensemble was a tribute to conductor Thomas Sleeper and the dedicated coaching of instrumental faculty members.

Stravinsky’s suite from the 1920 ballet Pulcinella opened the concert, conducted by Zoe Zeniodi, the university’s first candidate for a performance degree in conducting. Originally thought to have been based on music by Pergolesi, Pulcinella is  an adaptation of themes by several obscure eighteenth century composers dressed in spicy harmonies and instrumentation that is quintessentially Stravinsky. Zeniodi led a vivacious, classically scaled account of this effervescent score that never slighted the acerbic wit and bracing dissonance beneath the polished neo-classical surface.

With the members of the Bergonzi String Quartet occupying first chairs, string articulation was crisp and precise. Glenn Basham’s violin solos were shaped with aristocratic elegance.  Faculty member Brian Powell brought rhythmic urgency and supple dexterity to the tricky double bass solo. In the lovely Gavotte and variations, principal oboe Jim Drayton and flutist Cassandra Rondinelli took pride of place for tonal sweetness and fleet execution. Bright trumpet and trombone solos spiked the deceptively stately minuet, prefacing a zestful, high speed finale.

Following the chamber-sized dimensions of the Stravinsky work, the full ensemble took the stage for Anton Bruckner’s mighty Symphony No. 9 in D minor. Bruckner’s symphonies are vast cathedrals in sound. A devout mystic, Bruckner evoked the sonorities of a grand pipe organ in orchestral terms. Left incomplete at the composer’s death, the three movements of the Ninth Symphony fully convey a journey from darkness to light. It is difficult to imagine a greater conclusion to this masterpiece than the sublime third movement Adagio.

With only a few minor fluffs in the winds and brass, the Frost Symphony’s highly responsive performance channeled expressive power, large-scale orchestral weight and corporate sheen. From the opening string tremolos and horn calls to the glorious conclusion, Sleeper’s spacious leadership ignited Bruckner’s mystical exultation without succumbing to the ponderous thumping that can reduce the score to leaden monotony. The brief melodic threads and sudden harmonic shifts were perfectly gauged. An inexorable sense of surging momentum lifted the vast opening movement to inspired flight. Sleeper vividly conveyed the reverent majesty of Bruckner’s sacred mystery. His account of the Scherzo was unusually dark and foreboding, the lively dance of the trio providing only brief respite.

In the heavenly stasis of the final movement, the richness and warmth of the large string contingent glowed with vivid colors. The sunburst of brass heralding the transition to a major key was a thrilling celebration, impressively scaled by Sleeper. Indeed the Frost players and their inspired conductor produced a Bruckner performance that would do many second tier professional ensembles proud.

Posted in Performances

8 Responses to “Frost Symphony scales the heights impressively with Bruckner”

  1. Posted Sep 13, 2010 at 3:59 pm by JACK SLEEPER

    You really make me wish that I had been there.
    Your writeup is as colorful as the music.

  2. Posted Sep 13, 2010 at 4:05 pm by A Patron

    I was at the concert last night. I find this review to be Press Package fluff and the reviewer was certainly not at the concert I attended. The brass were very weak indeed and missed notes around the orchestra abounded everywhere. The interpretation was pedantic and often lagged.

  3. Posted Sep 14, 2010 at 6:46 pm by David

    I was not at the concert, so therefore I will not comment on the performance. However, can someone explain to me why a major music school has faculty members playing the principal string positions in the student orchestra?

  4. Posted Sep 14, 2010 at 11:01 pm by B Patron

    This was a deeply rendered performances, as moving and passionate as you’ll ever get of Bruckner’s last symphony. In a word, it was transcendent, evidenced by those very rare moments of collective stillness that was clearly felt in the hall that day. No squirming, no rattling programs, only rapt individuals, clearly taken by this momentous and inspired performance. Congratulations and sincere thanks to Sleeper and all at FSO for such a powerful experience. I still hear echoes and am grateful. Brass: you were awesome AND strong.

  5. Posted Sep 15, 2010 at 5:51 am by Thomas Sleeper

    The Bergonzi Quartet and Professor Brian Powell served beautifully as soloists for the Stravinsky Pulcinella Suite. It was a great experience for our students to perform side-by-side with their mentors on this composition. The students, of course, served as principals in the orchestra for Pulcinella as well as the Bruckner.

  6. Posted Sep 15, 2010 at 7:24 am by ellen shishko

    I attended the Sunday concert and was moved to tears by the soul conection of the sounds of the Bruckner.Sleeper did such an extraordinary performance 2 1/2 weeks after the class assembled ,it is awesome.If more people knew about it the seats would have all been filled….bravo!!!

  7. Posted Sep 15, 2010 at 11:58 am by Robert Lloyd

    My wife and I, too, attended the brilliant concert Sunday night and discovered Bruckner’s Ninth through Professor Sleeper’s powerful rendering, extracted from UM’s talented young students. Sleeper has gained a reputation for moulding and extracting amazing quality from young minds, literally in just days, year after year. To do this requires not only long hours but great technical expertise. Especially with such a lengthy work as this one.
    Thus, I must laugh at the pitiable comment above from “A Patron,” which attempts to besmirch not only Sleeper’s work but the students’ dedication and effort.
    Mr. Budmen’s review is, as usual, technically insightful as well as balanced and wonderfully descriptive of the work he critiques. Whereas, Mr. Anonymous sounds like someone, possibly a musician, eaten up with envy, and willing to attack without regard for a great educator’s reputation and the students’ accomplishments. I would urge that the editor of this website not post any negative comments about the works of others unless accompanied by a verifiable identity. How can someone be a “patron,” while tearing down the school’s works with petty and inaccurate comments?
    The audience’s sustained standing ovation was testimony to the powerful performance of the Frost Orchestra. My wife and I, who are also musicians, commented to each other afterward about the brilliant contrast between the soft and sensitive sounds of the massive string section, punctuated by the power of the brass crescendos throughout. Another comment above is right on about the audience’s rapt attention for close to fifty minutes. We can hardly wait for the next Sleeper / student concert.

  8. Posted Sep 16, 2010 at 12:43 am by LHG

    I suppose the people that are so lightly criticizing and questioning what happened that night are working overnight to show us something a lot better. And, since they appear to be so gifted with musical knowledge and talent, I bet they will soon be in the platform themselves delighting us with the most perfect performance and orchestra participants.
    Until then, I who did attend the concert, deeply and respectfully thank Composer/Conductor Thomas Sleeper for all the work his doing, for being so generous in sharing his thoughts and feelings on the Bruckner´s piece he so passionately conducted and delivered to the audience. To Dr. Zoe Zeniodi, who stood there with all the responsibility of being the university’s first candidate for a performance degree in conducting, and led the orchestra with such commitment, assurance and grace. To the orchestra and all its participants who did a wonderful job… and hey!, even if there might have been a few issues with the wind and brass…life is better off with the people that keep working hard to be better at what they do rather than sitting in the bench telling others how is supposed to be done!

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Mon Sep 13, 2010
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