With several chamber orchestras filling the symphonic gap in this part of the state, the South Florida Symphony offers a full-size group, which gives it the opportunity to present the largest works of the repertoire.
And so it was on Sunday night at the Spanish River Worship Center in Boca Raton that a huge orchestra sat on the stage for a performance of the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz, among two other works. Orchestra founder and conductor Sebrina Maria Alfonso and the organization are celebrating their 20th anniversary this season, giving concerts in Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and in the group’s original ancestral home of Key West.
This orchestra has gotten steadily better over the past few years, features good soloists – Canadian violinist Lara St. John led an inventive and exciting Vivaldi Four Seasons last month – and has presented concerts with some slightly unusual repertoire such as Nielsen symphonies and the later tone poems of Dvořák. The concert Sunday night (and I never have liked the idea of concerts on Sunday nights) had as its soloist a young Cuban pianist named Aldo López-Gavilán.
He was the soloist in the Piano Concerto in G of Maurice Ravel, a brilliant and lovely work suffused with jazz; Ravel had met and was an admirer of George Gershwin. López-Gavilán turned out to be quite a good soloist, a pianist whose sensitivity to the music was instantly obvious in his first bluesy solo entrance, and whose technique was impressively clean and strong.
This is not a concerto that showcases the soloist in an elaborate way; orchestra and soloist are well-integrated and play as partners rather than star and supporting actor. Alfonso and the orchestra worked well with the soloist despite the somewhat mushy starts to each movement.
This is one instance in which it would have been good to hear López-Gavilán play a solo encore; he sounds like a pianist with much to offer whose abilities were only briefly on display in this concerto.
The concert opened with a piece by the contemporary Israeli composer Nimrod Borenstein (b. 1969), whose If You Will It, It Is No Dream commemorates the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, drawing its inspiration from text by the founder of Zionism, the Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl. Borenstein’s short tone poem is built around a dance-like modal theme, and there is a very brief contrasting section in the middle. Borenstein is clearly heavily influenced by Gustav Mahler, but his melodic material is not nearly as compelling. It’s a piece without much distinction, but the orchestra played it with professional dispatch.
The second half was devoted to the Berlioz, which still has the power to amaze especially considering it was written in 1830. Throughout the piece, there was much to admire in the playing of the orchestra, such as the work of the cellos in the first movement when they bring in the yearning main theme, and the enthusiastic percussion section, which made its timpani and bass drum rolls truly fearsome. And aside from some slight muffing of notes in the great “March to the Scaffold” by the brass section and some iffy string ensemble in the violins early on, this is an orchestra that can play the Symphonie Fantastique.
But being able to play it is not the same thing as being able to communicate it. This was a Fantastique that was dutiful and unremarkable, big and full, but not exciting. Alfonso doesn’t convey a sense of line or narrative in her conducting; things simply follow one another without being led to or arrived at. And there was little sense of madness or invention in the last two movements in particular. They need to sound vivid, dramatic, crazy; this is Romantic music, even if it’s expressed with utterly French precision. Without a sense of wildness, of sonic fever, the whole point of the music is missed.
The South Florida Symphony appears to be doing well financially, and the orchestra itself sounds notably cleaner than it did only a couple years ago. The 21st season has more good soloists and interesting programs scheduled; here’s hoping that the performances live up to their potential.