The horns have it at Festival Miami’s brassy opener

By Lawrence Budmen

Richard Todd performed Gunther Schuller's Horn Concerto at Festival Miami's opening concert Saturday night at Gusman Concert Hall.

The French horn took center stage at the opening concert of Festival Miami Saturday evening at Gusman Concert Hall.

Richard Todd, a University of Miami Frost School of Music faculty member, was soloist in one of his own scores and a terrific horn concerto by Gunther Schuller. The French horns of the Frost Symphony Orchestra also had prominent roles in the balance of the program, featuring Haydn’s Symphony No. 31 (Horn Signal) and Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.

As orchestral player, jazz improviser, composer, conductor, musicologist, recording producer and educator, Gunther Schuller is a true musical Renaissance man. In a nearly seven-decade career, he has composed over one hundred and sixty works.

Schuller’s Concerto for Horn and Orchestra dates from 1943 when the teenaged Schuller was a member of the Cincinnati Symphony. Far from being a youthful exercise, this wonderfully imaginative score deserves to be part of the standard repertoire. An ominous lyrical theme opens the initial Andante moderato, building to a cataclysmic climax. A moody, expressionistic Nocturne recalls the Schoenberg of Verklarte Nacht. The tinkling soundscape of two harps, mallet percussion and luminous strings support the darkly expressive horn solo. In the concluding Scherzo, the virtuosic flourishes of Richard Strauss meet British martial rhythms in a bluesy, jazz-tinged interlude for the soloist.

Principal horn of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Todd is a master of the instrument. Playing a horn that once belonged to Schuller, he displayed agility and a richly sonorous tone in the high and low extremes of the instrument’s range. Todd fully captured the modernist romanticism of Schuller’s showpiece. Conductor Thomas Sleeper and the Frost Symphony Orchestra beautifully dovetailed his soloist’s phrasing at every turn.

Todd composed his ceL AbraCiOn in 2008 for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the capital LACO in the title denoting that ensemble. A short pops-oriented score, it is crafted with Hollywood slickness, and, despite some good tunes, Todd’s piece paled next to Schuller’s concerto.

Recent seasons have seen a marked improvement in the caliber of musicianship and ensemble playing of the youthful players of the Frost Symphony Orchestra . The resourceful conductor Thomas Sleeper is an inspiring force on the podium, coaxing remarkably subtle and idiomatic performances from his charges.

Sleeper’s incisive approach to Haydn’s early symphony was mercifully devoid of overly manicured, powdered-wig fussiness. Whether underlining the dark overtones of the stately Adagio or the witty vigor of the Minuet, Sleeper offered a vital and dynamic reading. The tightly cohesive ensemble playing showcased strong contributions from the horn quartet and violin, cello and bass solos in the mercurial shifts of the variations finale.

Sleeper led a merry romp through Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, channeling the score’s impish humor and Viennese charm. The playing of the Frost ensemble transcending its student status, with crackling brass, solid winds and reverberant strings responding to Sleeper’s high-voltage direction.

The University of Miami’s recently renovated Gusman Concert Hall now offers a more resonant acoustic. Instrumental textures now emerge with greater clarity and definition, and fortissimos are bright and crisp without the harshness that previously afflicted this venue.

Festival Miami continues 8 p.m. Sunday with Gunther Schuller and the Frost Chamber Players in works by Milhaud, Schuller and Dvorak. 305-284-4940.

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Sun Oct 2, 2011
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