Schwarz leads Frost Symphony in epic program

By Dennis D. Rooney

Gerard Schwarz conducted the Frost Symphony Orchestra in music of Bruckner and David Diamond Saturday night.

Gerard Schwarz conducted the Frost Symphony Orchestra in music of Brahms, Hovhaness and Shostakovich Saturday night at Gusman Concert Hall.

Saturday, October 12, happened to be the birthdate of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the English composer came to mind as one listened to the opening work on the program performed by the Frost Symphony Orchestra under its music director, Gerard Schwarz.

Mysterious Mountain is the better-known title of the Symphony No. 2 by Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), which led off the concert at Gusman Concert Hall on the University of Miami campus.

The American composer, who celebrated his Armenian heritage in many of his works, was prolific. His symphonies number 67, in addition to many other orchestral, choral, chamber and solo instrumental compositions. 

Mountains attracted him from his youth, but Hovhaness  claimed that no specific peak was intended by the title of Mysterious Mountain, which remains Hovhaness’s most popular work.

The hymn-like melody in the opening Andante con moto is modal and influenced by Renaissance polyphony clothed in lush string sonority that recalls Vaughn Williams’s Tallis Fantasia.  The monolithic sonorities of the Andante espressivo finale resemble similar materials in Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica, but the two composers’ tone worlds intersect only in those qualities. The second movement’s extraordinary double fugue was originally in a 1935 string quartet and is one of Hovhaness’s earliest surviving works. 

Under Schwarz’s direction, the playing of the Frost Symphony musicians was incisive and alert, bracing and brilliant. In both outer movements the harp and celeste were a bit overprominent, possibly due to the room’s acoustic.

The Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra in A minor was the last orchestral work from the pen of Johannes Brahms, and he conducted the first performance, in Cologne on October 18, 1887. 

Unfortunately, Saturday’s performance was often ponderous and sounded under-rehearsed. The orchestra’s articulation was too often smeary, further weakened by unbalanced voicing and imprecise ensemble attacks and cut-offs.

The playing of the soloists, violinist Charles Castleman and cellist Ross Harbaugh, both Frost faculty members, was also variable. It took until the middle movement for the cellist’s tone to coalesce. The violinist had a sweet sound and often phrased eloquently, but he also sounded light and underpowered. Excellent teamwork could not conceal how often the consonances built into their respective parts were upset by lapses in intonation.  The Allegro molto finale, lighter in mood, with alla zingara touches, provided the best playing of the performance

Whether the Tenth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, first performed in December 1953, nine months after the death of Stalin, is about Stalin is at the very least uncertain. If most of it dates from 1953, parts of it seem to have been written several years earlier. Withal, it is a deeply personal statement whose four movements, pervaded by profound sorrow punctuated by brutal violence, set the large orchestra alternately to grumbling, purring and roaring, fully engaging the listener over slightly less than one hour. 

Schwarz, who was recently appointed Distinguished Professor of Music, Conducting and Orchestral Studies at Miami University’s Frost School of Music, led a very satisfying account, holding his young players firmly together without any evidence of  fatigue.

An occasional tempo choice seemed arbitrary and some voices were undervalued while others spoke too coarsely, particularly a woodwind chorus whose acrid sonorities may have been even more acidy than imagined by the composer  The nine double basses won the evening’s prize for a superb foundation throughout this sprawling epic.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Schwarz leads Frost Symphony in epic program”

  1. Posted Oct 17, 2019 at 4:06 am by John M Cahill

    A lifetime of reading music reviews, beginning in NYC where I played horn in professional orchestras while earning two degrees from Juilliard, has led me to a conclusion: the reviewers know less than the musicians on whom they report.

    How could Dennis Rooney say tempos were “arbitrary” when his knowledge of the piece and music in general is perhaps 1% of that of Mr. Schwarz.

    The sad thing is reviewers often have the power to ruin careers of good musicians. It’s a funny world.

  2. Posted Oct 26, 2019 at 10:43 am by Frank Blanco

    I am neither critic nor musician, just an avid listener. Although not a fan of Hovhaness, this evening’s performance really piqued my interest, although I must agree the celesta was a bit intrusive.

    The Brahms (one of my favorite pieces) was definitely a big mess. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 was jaw-dropping and really puts a stamp on Mr. Schwarz’s tenure at UM… I hope it’s a long and fruitful one. Kudos to the double basses, their opening statement sent chills!

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