During the current concert season, Guillermo Figueroa has made two big statements about repertoire for the student orchestra at Lynn University that he directs.
In February, he presented the Roméo et Juliette of Hector Berlioz, his favorite composer, and a work almost never encountered in full in area concert halls (to say nothing of any of its constituent parts). And this past weekend, Figueroa returned to his violin as the soloist in the Second Violin Concerto of Béla Bartók, a work he considers one of the three finest concerti ever written for the instrument.
It says something about the leadership at Lynn and the determination of Figueroa that both works were programmed this season; like the Berlioz, the Bartok almost never comes around in Palm Beach County, while you could hear the Tchaikovsky concerto any number of times from visiting soloists.
On Sunday afternoon at the Wold Performing Arts Center on the Lynn campus in Boca Raton, the Lynn Philharmonia was led by conservatory dean Jon Robertson, a protégé of Herbert Blomstedt who leads his charges with precision and a good feeling for the big line. Figueroa is an excellent violinist who has performed with other iterations of this orchestra before, but here he was standing as an advocate of a great modernist work he thinks deserves more hearings.
The concerto, which until relatively recently was the only Bartók violin concerto he was known to have written (an earlier concerto surfaced in 1956), is without doubt a masterwork, a piece that has all the motivic and harmonic integrity of more hermetic works such as the late string quartets, but has a much more public face; it’s a concerto that isn’t shy about trying to entertain.
Figueroa and the orchestra gave a powerful, memorable reading of this marvelous concerto, with Figueroa displaying his huge technique to impressive effect. He was slightly under pitch in his first statement, but found his ground afterward (especially in the finale, when he paused to tune before getting it underway), and found an exciting groove to work out of thereafter.
There is a certain kind of surprising Bartókian energy that is hard to put into words, but it amounts to something like an aesthetic that allows almost anything to happen musically because the composer’s relatively terse language is so flexible. That allows him to go from polytonal clashes and orchestral raspberries to the delicacy of the openings of the first and second movements without being the least bit incongruous. Figueroa has absorbed this quality, and you could hear it in the sudden strength he brought to the violent tremolandi of the first movement and the epic struggle of the cadenza, and then to the profoundly tender lyricism of the second movement’s opening pages.
Robertson and the Philharmonia accompanied Figueroa beautifully, never getting in his way while never losing sight of him, either. The finale, with its wonderful brass outburst toward the end, had a stirring sense of drama and forward motion that both soloist and orchestra were tightly united in. It was a pleasure to hear this work played so expertly, and to enjoy the freshness it brought to a South Florida concert season with one too many workhorses.
The Philharmonia’s roster changes every school year with new players arriving and graduating ones departing, and each season usually shows marked growth. By this final concert, the Philharmonia had matured into a youthful, muscular ensemble with remarkably good string and wind sections, and a brass section that was close to error-free. That let Robertson concentrate on subtlety rather than just getting from letter A to the double bar.
The concert opened with the overture to Richard Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger. Although there were some flubbed notes somewhere in the lower trumpets, the brass otherwise played this sunny music with precision and good golden color. String ensemble was very fine, with no dissenting opinions within about intonation, and thanks to the size of the string complement, a fat Romantic sound that is exactly what you want to hear in Wagner.
Robertson often conducted without waving his baton, letting the orchestra move along while he waited to give important cues about emphasis; the orchestra followed his lead admirably well when he wanted to slow down for the final iteration of the march-chorale music.
Sunday’s concert, and the Lynn Philharmonia season, ended with an exceptionally good performance of another masterpiece, Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, in which the English composer’s personal melodic style is run through a Brahmsian focus to beautiful effect.
There was a lot to admire here: The solo work of the principal violist and cellist; the expert sense of sectional unity that let these young musicians make short work of some very demanding orchestral writing; and an overall blended sound that spoke of a group of players who had gotten used to each other by the end of the school year.
Robertson’s approach avoided sentimentality, taking a no-nonsense tempo on the “Nimrod” variation, and stressing dynamic contrast throughout the work in a most gratifying way. Each of the variations had its own specific color, and the musicians were able to play them like polished miniatures.
This was a really fine Enigma Variations, and it spoke volumes about the level of talent Lynn is able to attract as well as the paces through which that talent is put. It was the kind of concert that restored your hope in the future of orchestral music in this country, and it was a deeply fulfilling way to close the books on the season.