Schwarz’s “Sinfonietta” makes an impressive premiere with Palm Beach Symphony

By Lawrence Budmen

Akiko Suwanai performed Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with Gerard Schwarz leading the Palm Beach Symphony Wednesday night. Photo: IndieHouse Films

Gerard Schwarz has long been a major presence on the concert stage as a conductor and, in former times, assistant principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic. In South Florida, Schwarz has led consistently strong performances with the University of Miami’s Frost Symphony Orchestra and the Palm Beach Symphony. 

He is also a composer, and, on Wednesday night, he conducted the Palm Beach ensemble in the premiere of his Sinfonietta at the Kravis Center.

Schwarz told the audience that he is reticent about programming his own works. Judging by this three-movement, 16-minute opus, he is a gifted creative artist and should introduce more of his output to local concertgoers. He stated that the score is, in fact, a tone poem but he will leave it to the listeners to decide the work’s meaning. 

The Sinfonietta opens with four antiphonal trumpets sounding a fanfare from the left, right and rear of the stage; the first movement suggests conflict with alternating rhythmic patterns in differing meters. The second section opens with pianissimo strings, leading to a surging and uplifting theme worthy of Copland. Rapid, agitated thematic threads run through the finale with the four-member percussion battery kept busy.

Schwarz directed an authoritative performance of his score which he described as difficult but said the orchestra had mastered it quickly. Deploying nearly eighty players, the firm and sonorous tone of the brass (including four trumpets, four horns and three trombones) stood out. The tonal sweetness of concertmaster Evija Ozolins’ solo was matched by the precise articulation and silken sound of the full string section.

Schwarz’s orchestral showpiece, is well crafted and vastly appealing, and the audience responded with bravos and enthusiastic applause.

Akiko Suwanai was the evening’s soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major. The Japanese violinist was top prize winner in the 1990 Tchaikovsky Competition and has enjoyed a flourishing European career but has been heard only sporadically in the US. 

Three decades since her competition win, Suwanai’s technique remains strong and intact. She took an initially leisurely pace in the first movement, though her sound was burnished and her phrasing expressive. She easily conquered the devilish challenges of the cadenza while displaying a sense of spontaneity.

Schwarz shaped the wind introduction to the Canzonetta gracefully and Suwanai’s soft dynamics aided in bringing out the nostalgic yearning of Tchaikovsky’s melody. Her rapid-fire finale, played sans the standard cuts, captured the music’s gypsy ethos. The double stops were dispatched with total accuracy, and Schwarz and the orchestra provided stellar support.

A cheering standing ovation repeatedly brought Suwanai back to the stage. She offered a calming encore of the Largo from Bach’s Sonata No. 3, played with purity of intonation and Baroque stylishness.

One of Schwarz’s strengths on the podium is his ability to bring freshness and vitality to the most familiar symphonic repertoire. Such was the case with his reading of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”), which concluded the concert. 

The conductr gave full value to the symphony’s American influences. Written during the composer’s brief tenure as director of the National Conservatory in New York, the score blazed a path for native symphonists in the following decades. A tightly controlled first movement was followed by a lyrical and expansive version of the famous Largo. Antonio Urrutia’s English horn solo spanned a long and fluent arcs. Schwarz brought emphatic clarity to the wind lines in the central episode.

The third movement emerged at a brisk pace, with the contrasting trio infused with lilt and spirit. Schwarz’s expert balancing kept the strings fully audible over the brass, even in full throttle fortes. There was welcome heft and tension in the finale. Schwarz avoided the temptation to push the principal motif into overdrive. Principal flute Nadine Asin’s many solos were marked by smooth phrasing and tonal gleam. The buildup to the climactic pages had a sense of inevitability and strength with all sections of the orchestra playing  at top form.

Gerard Schwarz conducts the Palm Beach Symphony in Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, Adolphus Hailstork’s Four Hymns Without Words and Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade melancolique and Mélodie and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 with Pinchas Zukerman January 15, 2024 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

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Thu Dec 14, 2023
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