Young pianist’s fresh Rachmaninoff highlights ambitious concert at Miami Music Festival

By Dave Rosenbaum

Tristan Murphy performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 Saturday night at the Miami Music Festival.

Tristan Murphy performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Saturday night at the Miami Music Festival.

Three weeks of ambitious orchestral programming by the Miami Music Festival concluded Saturday night at the New World Center in Miami Beach. The program included a world premiere, performances by winners of the festival’s student concerto and conducting competitions, and Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, and proved exciting, mostly rewarding and, in one case, revelatory.

Ambition at times turned to over-ambition with an inconsistent, seemingly under-rehearsed reading of Strauss’ epic tone poem. But the evening’s highlights far exceeded that one misstep and provided additional evidence that MMF artistic director and conductor Michael Rossi is making great strides in filling Miami’s summer classical music void with quality as well as quantity.

Rossi, whose growth as a conductor has been among the many bright spots of this year’s festival, certainly can’t be accused of taking the easy route. Over a three-week period, he challenged his orchestra, comprised mainly of students at music conservatories, with Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, excerpts from Wagner operas and demanding works by Strauss. One would be hard-pressed to find the last time any South Florida orchestra attempted anything as ambitious in such a brief span of time.

Zarathustra, based on the work by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, opened thrillingly with an appropriately bright, powerful brass fanfare, rumbling timpani and shining strings in the famous introduction.  There were some nice moments throughout: the cello and double-bass opening in “Of Those in the Backwoods,” the singing strings in “Of The Great Longing” and solid playing by the winds.  Ensemble playing was the orchestra’s strength, but poor intonation frequently distracted from the work’s overall impact. Perhaps Rossi had finally asked too much of his orchestra.

Too bad because the first two and a half hours of this three-hour-plus program had been largely successful. It opened with the world premiere of Jeffery Briggs’ Two Poems of Hyam Plutzik, a 14-minute work for small orchestra (Plutzik, a Pulitzer Prize poetry finalist, was the father of the owner of Miami’s Betsy Hotel, a festival sponsor).

Mostly minimalist and urgent in the first section, the piece turns lyrical in the second before reverting to its minimalist origins. The MMF orchestra effectively conveyed the changing moods and textures with particularly nice playing by the strings in the first poem, “An equation,” and by the winds, especially the solo clarinet, in the second poem, “Jim Desterland.” The poems were read by Albert Carvalho, Superintendent of Miami-Dade Public Schools, who appropriately conveyed the work’s drama without sounding melodramatic.

The middle portion of the program, comprised of the concerto and conducting competition winners, was a tribute to violinist Ida Haendel, who could barely contain her emotions as she was honored in a longish ceremony prior to the concertos.

But on a night dedicated to a veteran violinist, 18-year-old Australian pianist Tristan Murphy grabbed the spotlight with a dignified, deeply moving performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C-minor.

The main melodies in the second and third movement are among the most-famous in the classical repertoire. The work is so familiar and played so many times, how can a soloist possibly make it new and exciting?

Murphy showed how by treating the work as something to be caressed, not attacked, and never letting flamboyant technique overshadow the music. Murphy, a Juilliard student, approached the warhorse with care and maturity. His phrasing was elegant and his sound pure in the second movement. The finale was energetic and exciting yet explored nuances and details in the score.

The MMF orchestra provided fine accompaniment with Rossi striking a nice balance between ensemble and soloist. The strings sounded appropriately pensive in the second movement. Brass were clear and strong, the winds, for the most part, precise throughout. The orchestra’s fresh, youthful advocacy added to the rewards of the performance.

Just as Rossi had not taken the easy route in the MMF’s orchestral programming this summer, the four other concerto competition winners also took on imposing challenges. Anna Ellsworth, an undergraduate at the Boston Conservatory, displayed a clear, sparkling tone in the first movement of Carl Reinecke’s mostly playful Harp Concerto.

Amy Nickler from Palm Beach Gardens overcame some nerves to negotiate the first movement of Giovanni Bottesini’s Double Bass Concerto No. 2, with her playing more assured and steady in the latter portions.

In the opening movement of Mozart’s Flute Concerto in D Major, Jessica Chancey, a sophomore at the Cleveland Institute, displayed a clear tone and deftly handled the movement’s faster passages.

Greek-Russian violinist Alexandros Petrin, the most-experienced of the five soloists, tackled Christian Sinding’s Suite in Old Style. The short, rapid-fire first movement had been a favorite of Jascha Heifitz, but Petrin’s playing was most pleasing in the Adagio and Andante as his sweet, rich tone emerged.

Student conductors Todd Craven, Alex Amsel and Jacobsen Woollen kept the orchestra under control in the Reinecke, Bottesini and Mozart and never allowed the ensemble to overwhelm the soloists.

Miami Music Festival presents Summer Chamber Works 7 p.m. Sunday at Barry University.

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Sun Jul 24, 2016
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