Under the 16 glittering chandeliers of Mar-a-Lago, the most tastefully decorated concert hall in America, Palm Beach Symphony played to the great, the good and the glamorous: scattered among the 600 guests were stand out beautiful young women in designer evening gowns — a coterie from Donald Trump’s Miss America pageant, perhaps?
Thanking Trump for his hospitality, Symphony President Dale McNulty said: “We make the music, you make the symphony, that’s the equation.” Wine and champagne flowed all night long as the capacity crowd heard some magnificent music making from orchestra and soloist.
The opener was Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 (Op. 72). Taken at a fairly fast pace, conductor Ramon Tebar got his string section to play as purely as the crystal in the overhanging chandeliers. Long, blaring Beethoven-style chords punctuated by small wind section teasers make way for the famous solo trumpet fanfares, two of them, from the back of the hall. After this the orchestra builds quietly with flute and bassoon trilling over the trumpet solos. More sensitive playing from the woodwinds as the strings begin their whirlwind bunch of intricate scales and the orchestra races to a brilliant tight ending.
Next came Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (in F minor, Op. 21), with Lola Astanova as soloist. It was performed for the first time in Warsaw on March 17, 1830, by the composer at 20 years of age when the obvious career path for him was as a traveling concertizer. In October of the same year, he left Warsaw to play in Vienna. Political turmoil blocked his return to Poland, and he settled in Paris, never to see his homeland again.
The concerto opens with a nice balance between orchestra and piano. Astanova’s left hand seemed too heavy at first; she soon made amends with some exquisite runs and scales. The orchestra’s wonderful dramatic passages lead to the soloist’s first flush of virtuoso playing. A gentle conversation between bassoon and piano follows, a sort of legato reverie, the work of a young Chopin who is brilliantly gifted in his musical inventions.
The second movement opens with a lovely lilting melody, getting more Chopinesque with its languid, deeply romantic theme. Astanova accompanied it with thrilling arpeggios and trills, playing with warmth and feeling of exquisite proportion as she moved the melody along. It was impressive keyboard work.
The last movement is a rondo in the form of a sprightly mazurka dance where pianist and orchestra play in sync. Now the pianist picks out the dance tune, hugely decorated by long runs up and down the keyboard. Astanova’s touch was feathery light, at times spellbinding. The orchestral accompaniment was excellent in these difficult passages.
Before the horn solo there are some meaningful rallentandos, but suddenly the orchestra got ahead of the soloist, and the playing suffered just a bit. They all seemed to rush the ending with five big chords and a brilliant run up the keyboard for Astanova. Cheers and warm applause greeted the soloist as a bouquet of flowers were presented to her, looking relaxed and lovely in a shimmering silver dress. The co-operation between soloist and conductor made this a great success.
Brahms Symphony No. 1 (in C minor, Op. 68) ended the night. It’s a massive work, scored for huge orchestras of 85-plus players, the strengths most European symphonies enjoy. On March 18, the 60 players of Palm Beach gave a bold interpretation worthy of the best.
As a young man, I found solace in listening to a recording of this work in times of stress. A BBC program by the daughter of George Henschel, a Brahms authority and once conductor of the Boston Symphony, introduced the work to me and thousands of others. It begins with a throbbing slow introduction moving to full intensity while accompanied by measured beats from the timpani. Now the strings without timpani play with an urgency as the point, counterpoint, so typical of Brahms, takes over.
Tebar was able to bring out the finer points needed to make this movement sound strong and urgent. I haven’t heard such fine teamwork in a long time; considering they had only four rehearsals, the playing was very fine.
The second movement is like a prayer. Solo oboe, then clarinet take the “prayer” along, nicely accompanied by their colleagues. It’s one continuous exceptionally well-played untroubled piece of music, but the horns fluffed their entrance, nearly ruining the peaceful end.
The third has a lovely opening. The brass, intent on righting its earlier mistakes, sounded wonderful here. The string section played as one and the woodwinds were terrific. This is some of the best playing from the orchestra in a long time.
The finale, with its mysterious back-and-forth plucked strings, is interrupted by a woodwind phrase. Plucked strings again start slowly and build to a speedy end. A
downward theme from the orchestra introduces the majestic horn tune, a melody Brahms is said to have heard played by a Swiss alphorn. This tune leads to a stirring, life-affirming march, so familiar to lovers of Brahms.
Tebar gave this symphony a damn fine reading, making the night a memorable occasion of music making. The orchestral playing was splendid, and it was greeted by a standing ovation.
The final concert of the Palm Beach Symphony season is set for Sunday, April 6, at the Kravis Center. The program holds a host of workhorses, including the Roman Carnival Overture of Berlioz, Sibelius’ Finlandia, Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. The concert is set for 3 p.m. $50 and up. Call 561-832-7469 or visit www.kravis.org.