It was fitting that in the first concert program after its founder’s passing, the Atlantic Classical Orchestra and a guest soloist could present an evening so full of life and eventful music-making.
On Wednesday night at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens, the young American violinist Sirena Huang gave the orchestra and its audience an astoundingly vital reading of a well-worn chestnut, the Violin Concerto (in E minor, Op. 64) of Felix Mendelssohn. In her performance of the piece, Huang brought to bear not just the technical brilliance it needs but the deep interpretive distinction it also requires but too rarely gets.
But before Huang’s sensational performance, conductor David Amado read a short statement of tribute to Andrew McMullan, the retired hornist and conductor who founded the ACO nearly 30 years ago and led its first seasons as he worked to establish the group on the Treasure Coast. McMullan died Jan. 26 at the considerable age of 95, and lived long enough to see his orchestra on recordings (including of rare Schumann) and to see it expand into northern Palm Beach County.
He would have been pleased with Wednesday’s performance, which began with the original 13-instrument version of Aaron Copland’s score for the ballet Appalachian Spring. Amado led a tasteful, careful version of this familiar music that didn’t overdo things, but simply let them be. He was well-served by wind players including clarinetist Richard Hancock, flutist Christina Apelgren, oboist Erika Yamada and especially bassoonist Janet Harris, whose breath support is nothing short of heroic.
The sparseness of the 13-instrument version, created because Copland had a small performance space for the original ballet, allows the audience to hear how skillfully the composer created the sound of the score and how precisely he judged its effects. Amado and the ACO presented it with simple, affecting elegance.
Huang, 24, who won the initial Elmar Oliveira Violin Competition in Boca Raton in 2017, was a last-minute replacement for the scheduled soloist, Tessa Lark, who bowed out because of a performance injury. Lark, a fine musician who gave the world premiere last month of a bluegrass-inflected concerto written for her by the American composer Michael Torke, was going to play the Violin Concerto of Jean Sibelius with ACO.
Huang took command of the Mendelssohn concerto from the very first notes to the last. Her bowing arm is something to behold: It moved up and down like a well-oiled piston, giving the main theme, one of the most familiar tunes in the Romantic repertory, a sound that was full, rich and thrillingly emotional. Her fingers were agile and always accurate, and her intonation spot-on.
But what really distinguished this performance was the maturity of her expression and her attention to detail. The second movement was tenderness itself, but she never let her sound grow tinny or faint; each note was fully expressed even when it was hushed. And in the third movement, which was delightfully light-hearted and not taken as quickly as some speed-demon violinists like to do, she marked a falling-scale passage she plays with two clarinets with punchy accents. The clarinets joined her for this small dab of extra color, which added wit and sass to the music.
Amado and the ACO were expert partners with Huang, and while it might seem hard to believe for a piece that’s been a violinist’s staple for more than 170 years, the Mendelssohn concerto Wednesday night sounded fresh and newly minted. Huang managed to infuse the piece with an excitement that kept audience ears on edge for what came next, and she did so brilliantly.
The second half of the program was devoted to the Spring Symphony (No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 38). Mendelssohn himself conducted the first performance of this piece at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1841 (four years before his own concerto debuted). Ever since then it has been knocked for its supposed gaucheries of orchestration, which I have always found baffling. Wednesday night’s performance suggested that with an orchestra of similar size to the Gewandhaus ensemble at the premiere – particularly with a smaller string complement – it’s easier to hear the kind of sound Schumann had in mind.
Amado led a buoyant, joyful reading of this symphony that also indicated it had been carefully rehearsed. The usual pitfalls in this work, which opens with an unprepared brass fanfare and features a wide variety of tempo and mood changes, were avoided here: the brass sounded steady and in tune at all times (with one minor horn glitch), and even in the fourth movement’s well-known climbing minor-scale passage topped with a trill, the orchestra was right there with Amado as he applied the brakes each time, stretching the music out effectively.
The first movement’s introduction, which Amado wisely declined to make too portentous (Schumann is inviting us to a celebration, not a Greek tragedy), was followed by a big-hearted, exuberant reading of the main material. After a lovely second movement and a muscular but not overly gritty third, the finale was bubbly and appropriately dramatic. In each movement, but particularly in the outer ones, the winds and brass were prominent and easy to hear from top to bottom, which added to the ebullience and color of the music.
This was a sparkling rendition of this well-known symphony, and it brought to a conclusion one of the finer concerts I’ve heard from a regional orchestra hereabouts. The repertoire was thrice-familiar, but soloist, orchestra and conductor played these works with the musical respect they deserve, allowing them to speak confidently, and memorably, as fully themselves.
I was sorry to hear about the death of Andy McMullan, whom I met and interviewed more than 20 years ago while I was working in Stuart. It should be noted that he in all likelihood introduced South Florida audiences to the brilliant American violinist Hilary Hahn when she was just a teenager. He knew exceptional talent when he heard it, and he was eager to feature it.
He should also be remembered for doing something many well-meaning people have been unable to do, and that is establish a stable, functioning arts institution in South Florida. The Florida Philharmonic has come and gone, for example, but the Atlantic Classical Orchestra soldiers on.
It surely does in part because Andy recognized that there was a large and willing audience in the area where he’d chosen to retire, and that having an ensemble the Treasure Coast could call its own was a winning bet. And he didn’t try to make the orchestra a pale copy of a much larger ensemble. He knew the repertory, and he knew how to program for a chamber-sized group and keep it interesting.
I remember him as a tall, courtly man who was passionate about music and driven to make his idea work. He will be missed as a person, but he should also be emulated as an example of how to bring the arts to a region still too often known nationwide only for sun and fun, and get it to put down the roots of something deeper.