Schwarz, Frost orchestras shine in Ravel, Strauss and Beethoven

By David Wright

Gerard Schwarz conducted the Frost Symphony Orchestra Saturday night at Gusman Concert Hall. Photo: Mitchell Zachs

Conductor Gerard Schwarz brought not one but two well-drilled orchestras to the University of Miami’s Maurice Gusman Concert Hall Saturday night, in a program of antiquarian 20th-century works followed by vintage Beethoven.

A widely spaced live audience in the dozens responded enthusiastically to vivid performances of Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye ballet score, Richard Strauss’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite, and Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 and Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major (“Emperor”). Santiago Rodriguez was the capable, and eventually exciting, piano soloist.

A considerably larger group of listeners (including this reviewer) caught the event in real time via a well-engineered online stream that left one feeling hardly disadvantaged by the medium. The bloom of orchestral sound, varied textures, and instrumental voice-leading came through, almost as if one were in the room.

Two student ensembles from the university’s Frost School of Music, the Frost Chamber Orchestra and the Frost Symphony Orchestra, shone equally on this night, the former in the concert’s 20th-century first half, the other in Beethoven’s heftier works. Judging from their rosters, the two groups have few if any members in common—a testimony to the depth of talent this student body can boast.

The concert’s droll overall title, ”The Bourgeois and the Emperor,” summed up the program’s expressive span, from homely pleasures to worldly grandeur.

It did, however, leave out Ravel, whose music opened the program with scenes from another world entirely. Five movements originally composed for two children to play at one piano were orchestrated, reshuffled, and fitted with interludes to make a fantastic ballet, all without losing their childlike playfulness and sense of wonder.

On Saturday, as piquant wind solos glided through clouds of muted strings, Frost music director Schwarz maintained a steady yet floating beat. His chamber ensemble plodded a little here, slipped out of sync there, but in the main joined forces admirably to evoke Ravel’s mostly weightless, soft-focus world. In exuberant contrast, “Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas” rattled with xylophone and percussion chinoiserie.

Strauss’s incidental music to Molière’s satirical play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme comes billed as the orchestral giant’s tribute to the more genteel aesthetic of Lully and his Baroque contemporaries. But Strauss is ever Strauss, and the whoops, raspberries and in-jokes (quoting Wagner and himself) are never far away.

Schwarz evoked all this comic business with careful attention to this composer’s distinctive chemistry of horns, woodwinds and strings, balancing the textures in a rich musical stew. One wished he had also insisted on accurate rhythms in the suite’s pervasive minuet tempos, with their bar after bar of long-short, long-short phrases. But even top professional ensembles cheat the long notes at such moments, so at least this young group was in distinguished company.

Strauss’s score contains notable string solos, particularly a cello melody in the last movement and brilliant writing for violin scattered throughout the piece. The student soloists, not identified in the program, executed their parts with fervor and panache.

Following intermission, the larger symphonic ensemble took the stage, still at least somewhat distanced and masked (including, somehow, the wind and brass players), for an enthusiastic performance of Beethoven’s third Leonore. Conductor Schwarz cued, and the players delivered, every dramatic turn of the piece from the suspenseful opening bars to the whipsaw mood swings of the development section.

As in the Strauss, sonic richness and balance were the strong points and rhythmic precision the Achilles heel (although the recap of the leaping theme in flute and bassoon was splendidly right-on). The well-paced coda built grandly to its triumphant close.

Santiago Rodriguez was the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 Saturday night. Photo: Mitchell Zachs

In the concerto, Santiago Rodriguez, chairman of the Frost School’s keyboard performance department, gave a somewhat professorial performance, taking care not to color outside the lines. The Cuban-born pianist coolly executed the piece’s extravagant opening cadenzas as if they were simply a bit of exposition.

With time, however, the pianist’s restraint pulled back to reveal a longer-range view of the “Emperor,” imperial in its hauteur at first but yielding to some genuine excitement in the finale. Transient effects and impulsive gestures were not on the menu.

For those, the performance relied on Schwarz and his young players—in effect turning the concerto aesthetic on its head. Instead of a long-suffering orchestra puffing to keep up with a headstrong soloist, the conductor and musicians lit a symphonic fire under the score in their many tutti passages, and seemed even to push the impassive pianist a little in the ensemble moments.

For his part, Rodriguez played with impeccable rhythm and polish. Two smallish microphones, visible inside the instrument, beautifully captured the lustrous Steinway tone for the online audience.

Schwarz moved the central Adagio un poco mosso along at a hymn-like andante, to good effect. Although the piano’s dreamy entrance sounded a bit prosaic, Rodriguez generated a dignified warmth when entrusted with the main theme.

It was almost a relief to hear the soloist rush and spoil the rhythm as he bounded into the finale theme. Soon enough, however, he and the orchestra were in a groove, with their eyes on the prize of the concerto’s exuberant conclusion, and this bourgeois-imperial concert ended in a glow of athletic and musical delight.

The concert is available on the University of Miami website (Frost Orchestras—The Bourgeois and the Emperor – University of Miami) and YouTube (The Bourgeois and the Emperor—Frost Orchestras – YouTube).  

David Wright is the former program annotator of the New York Philharmonic. His notes still appear (when concerts resume) at Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series and Mostly Mozart Festival, and at other venues. He has written for The Classical Review, formerly from Boston and currently from New York, since 2011.

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One Response to “Schwarz, Frost orchestras shine in Ravel, Strauss and Beethoven”

  1. Posted Feb 24, 2021 at 2:08 pm by Elizabeth Pomeroy

    It’s a pleasure to read such literate and keenly observed reviewing. This brings credit to the orchestras and all their musicians. Looking forward to future reviews from David Wright.

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