With Nowak, the Miami Summer Music Fest Orchestra hits its stride in Strauss

By Lawrence Budmen

Grzegorz Nowak conducted the Miami Summer Music Festival Orchestra Friday night at Barry University in Miami Shores.

Grzegorz Nowak conducted the Miami Summer Music Festival Orchestra Friday night at Barry University in Miami Shores.

Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) may be the most egotistical piece of music ever written. In the course of the 45-minute tone poem, the composer sketches a self portrait, imagining himself as lover, warrior, and noble creative artist. He also presents an unflattering portrait of his adversaries—European music critics allied to modernism and opposed to Strauss’s conservative style.

The orchestral score was the major work on the program of the Miami Summer Music Festival concert Friday night at Barry University’s Broad Performing Arts Center in Miami Shores.

With Grzegorz Nowak on the podium and an additional week of rehearsal under their belts, the 95-member student orchestra sounded like a very different ensemble than at the opening concert last week. Nowak combines teaching and conducting at Miami’s Florida International University with major orchestral engagements in Europe. The Polish conductor clearly knows how to get the best out of student players. Whereas the brass and winds were often tentative in a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony on opening night, they emerged strong and secure in Strauss’s lavish orchestral scoring under Nowak’s experienced direction.

Right from the initial statement of the hero’s theme, Nowak conveyed a strong sense of forward thrust and romantic turbulence. The strings produced rich, plangent sonorities while the tricky passages for flutes were accurately played. In the score’s first half, the concertmaster’s solo role is highly prominent in its portrait of the Hero’s wife. Alexandros Petrin combined tonal sweetness with dexterity, and the bravura violin lines were rendered with apt showmanship.

Strauss’ luxuriant textures were given space and Nowak’s detailing of inner lines was especially noteworthy. The trumpet calls to battle resounded potently and the horns brought heroic strength to the quotation of the theme from Strauss’ Don Juan. The conductor whipped up fury and fire in the battle music and the final section had fine drama and gravitas, the music eloquently shaped by Nowak.

The concert’s first half was devoted to four winners of the festival’s concerto competition with Nowak sharing podium duties with two conducting students.

Two string players made strong showings. Carolina von Alvensleben was a fine Mozart stylist in the first movement of the Violin Concerto No. 3, playing with silvery tone, vigor and grace. Interestingly she chose Tibor Varga’s cadenza which adds a touch of Paganini pyrotechnics to Mozart’s thematic phrases.

Cellist Megan Chartier really dug into the first section of Schumann’s Cello Concerto, unafraid to display gutsy abandon. With a moderate-sized tone, Chartier brought out the score’s dark sadness and soulful melodies. But why did this extract conclude with an unresolved wind chord? Chartier’s reading was so compelling and personal that one wanted to hear the entire score. Nowak provided strong support while underlining the score’s agitated undercurrents.

With conductor Carlos Díez Martín setting a snappy pace, Andrew Symington produced a wide range of colors in Telemann’s Horn Concerto in D Major, the trills spot on and the horn calls of the final movement spun at a rapid clip without loss of precision.

Flutist Ivana Ugrcic displayed an attractive, evenly produced sound in Georges Hüe’s Fantasie. With a direct quote from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, the work is a cross between impressionistic etude and movie soundtrack, yet made a fine showcase for Ugrcic’s singing tones. Conductor Juan B. Carmena gave Hüe’s widescreen orchestral writing full impact.

The Miami Summer Music Festival continues  with a production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Barry University’s Broad Performing Arts Center in Miami Shores. Pianist Ilya Itin plays a Rachmaninoff-Scriabin recital 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Andy Gato Gallery. miamisummermusicfestival.com

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Sat Jul 18, 2015
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