By Dennis D. Rooney
The Palm Beach Symphony closed its 44th season April 17 at the Kravis Center with a most ambitious program.
Too ambitious, as it happened. American cellist Zuill Bailey was the soloist in Edward Elgar’s 1919 Cello Concerto (in E minor, Op. 85), taking the place of the previously announced Romanian cellist, Răzvan Suma. Playing the “ex-Schneider” (Rosette) cello made by the Venetian luthier Matteo Gofriller in 1693, Bailey negotiated the patterns of the concerto’s four movements successfully, but his performance was strangely generalized in expression, perhaps due in part to limited rehearsal with the orchestra.
His Telarc recording of the work has been highly praised. I have not heard that, but in this performance his tone was often muffled, he over-vibrated so as to cloud his pitch center, and the orchestra, which suffered from poor to nonexistent balance, frequently covered his upper register.
Elgar’s last major work, the concerto is pervasively autumnal in mood, often lugubrious, and does not exploit a bravura role for the soloist. Perhaps to compensate for a lack of flair in the solo part, Bailey indulged in some showy theatrical physical flourishes during his performance. They might have been mistaken by some for eloquence; however, they succeeded in giving two young women seated in front of me a bad case of the giggles.
By the finale, the orchestra seemed most engaged, but conductor Ramón Tebar did not seem to be doing anything to clarify texture as much as he was busy subdividing his beat.
The second half was devoted to an uncut performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 (in E minor, Op. 27). Composed a decade earlier than the Elgar Concerto, it has become one of the best-loved of all symphonic works due to its ardent, luxurious expression and the composer’s remarkable orchestral imagination. At the same time, it presents difficulties that can only be successfully met by a top-rank orchestra.
Here, the performance was of a large number of instruments sounding together without discernible attention to expressive character, variety of mood, incisive articulation, balanced textures, or carefully scaled dynamics. Tebar favored quick tempos, but the dynamics of the opening Allegro moderato rarely deviated far from mezzo forte. The Allegro molto scherzo was muddy until the trio when it got even muddier. However, the cymbal crash and bass drum that opened that section was successful in rousing a few somnolent patrons around me.
The Adagio, despite many mishaps, spoke effectively, as if Rachmaninov’s sunny lyricism could not be squelched, and the players seemed to relax into the music. But in the finale (Allegro vivace) they hit a wall, and hard. As the movement built steadily toward its immensely powerful conclusion, the players reached their individual and collective limits, with no more available. It was, in its lamentable way, a virtual definition of an underpowered orchestra.
Some individual players stood out, nevertheless. Concertmistress Evija Ozolins, principal viola Chauncey Patterson, principal flute Nadine Asin, timpanist Mark Schubert, and an otherwise unidentified English horn player whose tone, if not beautiful, was expressive, enabling him to make the most of his solos.