By Kevin Wilt
The Palm Beach Symphony orchestra squeezed on to the stage at the Society of the Four Arts for their “Seven Wonders” concert Dec. 6, along with guest conductor Albert-George Schram.
The show opened with Gioachino Rossini’s overture to his opera La scala di seta (The Silken Ladder). There were a few intonation issues early on, especially between the winds and violins. The piece includes a few woodwind solos that never seemed to blend quite right with the rest of the ensemble. The overall sound of the orchestra seemed thin and lacking weight. Although it was missing a bit of polish, this piece still served as a fun concert opener.
Next was the Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments from Swiss composer Frank Martin, featuring several of the orchestra’s principal wind players. It opened with a lovely clarinet solo from Anna Brumbaugh, before the melody traded from horn to trumpet, in an interesting dovetailing of the melody between the soloists. The first movement of this mid-century piece seemed to miss the muscle it needed. Being less familiar to the orchestra than the Rossini, it also felt under-rehearsed.
The second movement featured a repeating, cyclical, almost passacaglia idea, leading to a cool muted trumpet solo. Like the solos in the Rossini, the small space created some strange blending issues due to held-back intensity. With a harmonic language reminiscent of film composer Bernard Herrmann, this movement was a bit more interesting than the first.
The third movement also fell short, not being quite as fierce as the music required. It seemed as though this music should have been big, forceful, and cinematic, but the small space of the Four Arts – wonderful for chamber music – caused the players of the orchestra to constantly hold back in their cramped quarters, as if they did not have the physical or sonic elbow room to play out.
The centerpiece of the concert was one of Franz Joseph Haydn’s famed London symphonies, Symphony No. 104 (in D major). Again, missing a bit of force, the first movements of this piece came across as a bit boring. The difference between a reading of a piece and a performance of a piece comes down to decisions; are the performers making musical choices, taking chances, having an opinion on how the piece should go, or are they just playing the notes on the page, with starting and stopping together being the only requirement? For much of this concert, it seemed like the latter was the case.
The second movement featured some delicate playing, and some occasionally interesting dynamic changes, but with a pretty limited, undramatic range. The dance groove needed for the minuet never quite gelled in the third movement. The fourth movement of the symphony finally started to show some signs of life. Although still a little lightweight in the overall sound, it was fun, and had the orchestra playing as a group for the first time all evening.
As an encore, the orchestra returned to Rossini, playing the composer’s famed overture to his opera The Barber of Seville, a perennial audience and Looney Tunes favorite. While sharing similar issues with the opening overture, this was a fun, tried-and-true encore to end the concert.
It was nice to have an accomplished guest conductor lead the orchestra, and his charisma did not go unnoticed, but the tight sonic space, and the general sense of being under-rehearsed took something away from what should have mostly been reliable repertoire. This was music that needed more muscle, more weight, more precision, and more risk-taking to bring it to the level excitement it deserved.