I had to miss out on the first Lynn Philarmonia concert in late September because of a family emergency, but this past Saturday night at the Wold Center for the Performing Arts, I was able to make it to the second concert, and I found that there’s a lot to be excited about.
Director Guillermo Figueroa, who has recently added a regular gig with the Santa Fe Symphony to his schedule, has a new group of students to lead this semester, and it’s a fine one. In this concert of music by Mozart, Beethoven and Debussy, the group sounded like a very good regional full-size orchestra, able to handle virtuosic writing and a variety of styles and assignments in strong and capable fashion.
Lynn University professor Roberta Rust joined the group as soloist in the Mozart Concerto No. 23 (in A, K. 488), a work she played earlier this summer in a chamber music version with the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival. Then as now, she played with straightforwardness and clarity, giving an attractive reading of this popular concerto. There was more room for interpretive subtlety, particularly in the second movement, but Rust didn’t really go there, keeping things on the sunny straight and narrow.
The Philharmonia proved to be quite a good accompanying ensemble, staying well out of Rust’s way in the bubblier passages, and working closely with her throughout. The tempo of the finale was a bit too sluggish, and that led to a thickness in texture that was somewhere south of the light-but-forceful Mozartean language that gives finales like this such a joyful spirit.
The concert opened with the Second Symphony (in D, Op. 36) of Beethoven, a masterpiece of the composer’s early maturity. Figueroa pointed out in insightful remarks before the performance that Beethoven had realized his growing deafness was getting worse and was going to stay that way even as he worked on this athletic and confident symphony, which bears no trace of the bleak suicidal thoughts he was having at the time.
And it was most encouraging to hear the introduction to the first movement, a slow setup in the Haydn tradition that goes the older master one better in complexity and promises of a big adventure to come. Almost invariably, except for the elite professional groups, these kinds of introductions (in Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, primarily) played by smaller local ensembles, not to mention students, invite the audience to a wince-worthy couple minutes as players adjust their tuning and togetherness before getting to the main event.
But thankfully, not here. That unison D in the opening measure Saturday night was on time and in tune, with rich, lovely wind playing right after that, and a steady tempo over which the multiplicity of rhythms Beethoven tosses out (especially the rapid string scales) could be heard in their proper context. In other words, the players were ready to perform the introduction as well as the rest of the symphony, and if that seems like too much time spent on a short part of the work, it’s only because doing these kinds of setups right tells us a lot about the kind of orchestra and conductor we’re listening to.
And it stayed at that level throughout. The introduction rolled seamlessly into the Allegro con brio, which then hummed along at a cheerful pace. The work that has been put into slowly expanding the string sections in the Philharmonia over the years has paid off; this Beethoven had a large, well-balanced complement of players that gave the music a generous, muscular sound.
That prophetic second movement, which looks beyond classicism to the tumult of the Romantic era, had an admirable attention to dynamics and color, and once again the size of the orchestra helped give it an epic quality. The Scherzo was slightly pokey, with a trio that could have used some more contrast (hard to do when things stay in the same key), but the finale was splendid, with that crazy, galumphing main motif nicely judged and expertly played each time. The sense of humorous, dramatic surprise is the guiding spirit of the finale, and Figueroa and his students made the most of it, to joyful and thrilling effect.
The second half was devoted to Claude Debussy’s tone poem La Mer, which had its premiere in Paris exactly 111 years ago Saturday night, as Figueroa told the audience. And the Lynn performance was good enough to demonstrate that this work from 1905 was in its own way revolutionary for its time; although it does not plumb the depths of atonality as Schoenberg did that same decade, nor explore the rhythmic universe as Stravinsky was to do in Sacre du Printemps eight years later, La Mer announces with profundity that nothing was to be the same in music hereafter.
This work is a huge challenge for any orchestra, not least because of its sudden changes of mood and tempo, which all have to coalesce into something effective. And this was a most effective performance, big and red-blooded in an American way rather than classically French, but none the less persuasive for that. This was a La Mer with real power and a large vision, and it communicated Debussy’s breakthroughs beautifully.
Especially worthy of note were the solo and section work. The first movement revealed that this iteration of the Philharmonia has a remarkably good cello section, and the third showed off a sonorous, in-tune, firmly weighted brass section whose entrance in the last pages was tremendously exciting, as it’s supposed to be. Kudos, too, to the concertmistress, the flute, oboe and English horn soloists, and in particular the trumpet soloist in the third movement, whose playing had a bright, sun-glare sheen that stood out brilliantly over the sonic wind and waves.
The Lynn Philharmonia’s next performances are set for Nov. 12 and 13 at 7:30 and 4 p.m. respectively, at the Wold Center for the Performing Arts. Featured will be the winners of the conservatory’s annual concerto competition. For more information, call 237-9000 or visit lynn.edu/events.