Young conductors hone their craft at Miami Beach Classical Music Festival

By Lawrence Budmen

James Chang conducted music of Mozart and Shawn Okpebholo at the Miami Beach Classical Music Festival.

Seven young conductors took turns on the podium at the Miami Beach Classical Music Festival’s opening orchestra concert Thursday night at Temple Emanu-El. 

While singers and instrumentalists are able to practice their craft by themselves, aspiring podium artists need an orchestra to hone their skills. An ensemble of eager youthful musicians was on hand to provide that opportunity. (The conductors had been coached by festival conducting faculty members Mark Gibson and Apo Hsu.)

The concert’s clear star was James Chang. Sharing Mozart’s Symphony No. 33 in E-flat Major with two other conductors, Chang’s light, airy reading of the concluding Allegro assai sparkled, with Chang drawing precise articulation from the orchestra. Earlier Junyuan Chen seemed more comfortable in the charming felicities of the Andante moderato than in the initial Allegro which was wanting in energy and drive. Billy Xiang led a crisp account of the Menuetto.

Chang also conducted a terrific performance of Shawn Okpebholo’s Kutimbua Khivumbi (Stomp the Dust). A graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music and a professor at Wheaton College, Okpebholo was inspired to conceive his eleven-minute tone poem following a trip to Kenya. 

Reflecting his journey through the nightlife of Nairobi, rural villages and nomadic tribal areas, the score brims with color and atmosphere. The work opens with fierce African-style drumming, and brass fanfares and dissonant string lines soon compete for attention, Catchy dance melodies appear through the aural maze and a virtuosic violin solo takes wing, ably assayed by concertmaster Mae Bariff. Chang effectively navigated the young players through the work’s dense complexities, drawing the best performance of the evening. This is an outstanding symphonic essay by a gifted composer who deserves continued exposure.

Violinist Bariff had her own turn in the spotlight with a worthy traversal of Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. She brought fine feeling for the vignette’s Gallic grace and assayed the fiendish Paganini-like pyrotechnics with accuracy. The accompaniment under Xiang was not always in synch with the soloist.  

Cole Bendall opened the evening with a vigorous reading of Starburst by Jessie Montgomery. Usually heard in a strings only edition, winds and harp added harmonic spice to this popular 21st-century bonbon.

Bendall brought out much of the lyricism, if not the full passion of the Overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. He managed to coax some variety of dynamics in the resonant, domed sanctuary and the brass chorale theme emerged sonorously.

The program concluded with Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major (“Rhenish”). This is a difficult work to bring off for any professional ensemble. 

The student players gave a brave effort under three different maestri despite some untidy details. Victor Morales captured much of the romantic spirit of the first movement. A more coherent line would have been welcome but he kept the orchestral soloists on track. 

Bennett Astrove’s tempo in the Scherzo was too slow by half. He was more attuned to the songful impulses of the third movement.  Gordon Cheung drew greater weight and corporate sonority in the fourth movement (Schumann’ portrait of a ceremony at the Cologne Cathedral. The finale is one of the great blues chasers in its rhythmic propulsion and high spirits and Cheung managed the big climactic flourishes with a firm hand.

The audience awarded all of the conductors a standing ovation at the concert’s conclusion. Another group from the festival’s conducting program will share the musical leadership of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the family performance on Sunday. 

The Miami Beach Classical Music Festival presents Mozart’s The Magic Flute 2 p.m. Sunday at Temple Emanu-El, 1701 Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. The performance is free.

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Fri Jul 8, 2022
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