Schwarz, Frost Symphony deliver rousing Ravel with “Daphnis et Chloè”

By Lawrence Budmen

Gerard Schwarz conducted the Frost Symphony Orchestra in music of Ravel and Zwilich Saturday night.

Since 2019 when Gerard Schwarz became director of orchestral studies and artistic director of the Frost Symphony Orchestra at the University of Miami, the already-high artistic standards of the student ensemble (instilled by the late Thomas Sleeper) have risen exponentially. 

On Saturday night at UM Gusman Concert Hall, Schwarz took the orchestra to a new level of excellence with a terrific performance of Suites Nos. 1 and 2 from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloè that could hold its own with the work of most professional orchestras.

Even in the Frost group’s best performances in recent seasons, there have been one or two fluffs, usually from winds or brass, but none of that was in evidence in the large-scale iteration of the Ravel ballet score. Schwarz deployed 10 double basses (on the far left of the stage), two harps, seven percussionists and quadruple brass and winds. The corporate sound in the very live Gusman acoustic could be overpowering at the tumultuous climaxes but it was also rich, sonorous, and voluptuous. 

Schwarz’s interpretive approach conveyed both the surging primal rhythms and the Gallic elegance of Ravel’s writing, reminding the listener anew what a remarkable and original creation Daphnis et Chloè is within Ravel’s oeuvre. Instead of merely playing just the familiar Second Suite, Schwarz offered the rarely played First as well, giving the audience a broader perspective of this epochal 1912 work.

In the opening pages of the first suite’s “Nocturne,” softly shimmering strings and solo flute set the atmosphere and the two harps glistened over the violins’ full sonority. The offstage horn and trumpet parts in the “Interlude” were assayed in front of the orchestra (on the audience level) at opposite sides of the hall. Schwarz whipped up a frenzy of energy from the mass forces in the wild “Dance guerrière.” 

Holding his hands up to stop the audience from applauding, he launched immediately into the Second Suite. The depth of tonal sheen from the violas at the outset of “Lever du jour” emerged to striking effect and there was an agility and float to the flute solo in the “Pantomime.” The enlarged wind section distinguished itself with spot-on articulation. 

Concertmaster Adrrienne Williams’ numerous solo opportunities were marked by sweetness of tone and astute musicality. The final “Dance Générale” resounded in crisp accents, with Schwarz drawing the velocity to a high pitch. Schwarz’s stick technique is impeccable, the beat clear and cuing precise,  which aids in obtaining such polished results.

The concert opened with Celebration for Orchestra by Miami native Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. (As young orchestral musicians, violinist Zwilich and trumpet player Schwarz played together in the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski.) Written for the opening of a new hall in Indianapolis in 1994, Zwilich’s opus is a mini-concerto for orchestra that puts each section through its paces. Stalwart brass fanfares contrast with solemn wind paths and reflective violin and cello solos. Schwarz briskly paced this festive curtain raiser, obtaining razor-sharp playing from all sections.

Frost DMA graduate pianist and teaching assistant Hongxi Li was the soloist in the cncert’s centerpiece, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. A winner of numerous competitions and awards, Li currently studies under Frost faculty member Naoko Takao. 

With a rock-solid technique and strong interpretive instincts, she is highly gifted. At first, her approach seemed overly percussive, but she quickly adjusted and brought sensitive, lyrical shaping to the opening movement and had the extended cadenza well in hand. She captured much of the songlike aura of the Intermezzo. The Allegro vivace finale was rhythmically exciting and executed with dashing sweep. Well prepared and instrumentally secure, Li is clearly a talent to watch.

Graduate conductor Alberto Bade gave her effusive support, drawing full bodied orchestral playing and emphasizing instrumental details with clarity.  The entire concert was projected on the windows of the new Knight Center for Music Innovation on the Frost campus.

Gerard Schwarz conducts the Frost Symphony Orchestra in Peter Menin’s Moby Dick, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and the premiere of Lansing McLoskey’s I Heard the Children Singing with violinist Miclen Laipang.  7:30 p.m. December 2 at UM Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables.

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Sun Oct 29, 2023
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