Under the leadership of Ramón Tebar, there is no doubt that the Palm Beach Symphony has become the worthy successor to the late lamented Florida Philharmonic.
But the public is woefully ignorant of this sparkling gem in its midst due to the private nature of its past. Happily, there are forces at work to help it become the orchestra for all of Palm Beach County.
High praise, then, for the orchestra’s concert Jan. 19 at the Benjamin School in Palm Beach Gardens. It featured works by Liszt, Borodin and the Arnold Schoenberg orchestration of the Brahms G Minor Piano Quartet. Tebar beefed up the ensemble’s ranks from 42 to 63 for this evening.
Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 opened the program. He was 35 when he stopped touring Europe as the number one virtuoso pianist of his time to dedicate his life to composing. This Rhapsody, full of groundbreaking harmonies and chromaticisms, was written a year later in 1847, when he was 36.
The orchestration of this familiar piano piece opens with a solo clarinet followed by the cellos. It begins soulfully, almost mournfully, then brightens up as each section gets to perform a jig, a dance, a polka until the familiar tune associated with this piece emerges in the string section, giving it a full airing as they dominate all the others. Tebar seemed to play the orchestra as a keyboard, regulating soft and loud passages immediately with his baton and body gestures.
Next followed Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 (in B minor). I can honestly say the playing of the Palm Beach Symphony in this performance ranked with those of the great five of America — Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco. It was a superb interpretation. Tebar’s direction and control was razor sharp, with every section entrance clearly signaled. His leadership was sensitive and demanding, warm and exuberant .
Borodin, a chemist who wrote music on the side, took six years to complete this bold and colorful masterpiece. The opening primal theme takes the listener straight to the steppes of Russia. Borodin wrote to a friend that it recalled the spirit of Russian warriors of yore. The warriors here were the orchestral players who reveled in the music, enjoying every note under the leadership of their conductor. Sustained applause from the half-full house gave the Palm Beach Symphony a very warm reception.
As an orchestra builder, Tebar has done well. His past two years have seen the introduction of works outside the norm. In educating his audience this season, he offered an unusual work, the Schoenberg transcription of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 (in G minor, Op. 25).
This 43-minute work, arranged in 1937, could well be thought of as Brahms’ Fifth Symphony; it is monumental in scope and brilliant in its orchestration staying close to Brahm’s structures and sounds. The first movement has lots of counterpoint and developing variations that evolve gently and grow massively. An attractive theme is passed around the orchestra, then the exposed strings take off with a new theme, beautifully played, as its development proceeds smoothly. It was here I first appreciated Schoenberg’s orchestration. At the dignified quiet ending of the Allegro one could have heard a pin drop; the audience was engrossed.
The well-known finale of this quartet is a fleet-footed gypsy dance. In Schoenberg’s arrangement, each section gets a chance to shine, and Tebar led them in this lively, rhythmic, engaging music masterfully. This music also provided Schoenberg with ample opportunity to use the full orchestra and its sparkling percussion to bring this fine symphonic quartet to a brilliant ending.
Unusually loud applause greeted the end with bravos galore, as if this audience wanted to make up in volume for what was missing from the empty seats. Why did Schoenberg decide to orchestrate this piano quartet? Because, he told a friend, “ It is always badly played. The better the pianist, the louder he plays and nothing is heard from the strings. I like the piece. It is seldom played. I wanted to hear everything, and this I achieved.”
His brilliant orchestration is testament to his skill, and some of us have Ramón Tebar to thank for bringing it to our attention.