November 16, 1999
A Review by Pat and Ernie Pinson
The Saturday, October 30 performance of the Mobile Symphony marked much that was Brand New for this group -- the search for a brand new conductor, a new program called "Talk Back" after the performance, the newly acquired home of the Saenger Theater, and the vision for the arts in a new downtown Mobile as presented by Mayor Michael Dow. There is much work to be done, but there is a New World of opportunity. Bravo to Mobile for protecting its interesting old buildings, and giving them new lives in culture and the arts.
The interview parade of four conductors this season offers us a chance to see what one person can do with one performance. Frankly, the description in Xiao-Lu Li's profile as giving "mesmerizing" and "electrifying" performances left us a bit skeptical, although his being featured in ASO's Symphony magazine and on Charles Osgood's CBS Sunday Morning granted that we certainly had of a conductor of style.
Li strode on stage in a gracious, energetic manner and opened the program with The Overture to The Jolly Robbers by von SuppÈ. Full of fanfares and galloping horses (the well- behaved Viennese horses, of course), this curtain raiser gave the first clue that it was to be an exceptional evening -- the orchestra performed as a well-rehearsed tight unit of sound.
Taking the stage as featured performer, Wilbur Moreland, USM professor and first chair clarinet for the Symphony, made the von Weber Clarinet Concerto seem effortless. Li and Moreland worked together to create beautiful phrasing and dynamic variations in texture. Moreland's arabesques of line folded in and out of the fabric of sound which actually seemed to dance in places. Written in 1811, Weber still had strong ties to Mozart, and Haydn and this work is a showpiece for the instrument. Moreland is obviously a master performer and a strong asset to the symphony.
The New World Symphony by Dvorak has become stable fare for American orchestras and is strongly identified with this country - "Goin' Home" having found its way into most hymnals and songbooks. Here one sees where "electric" comes from -- sometimes in the high energy points of the music, the attacks and releases were so clean they were like current running through to the audience. There was an especially nice luftpause (slight pause at the top of a phrase) in the violin theme of the first movement, and the strings were so unified, they often moved as one sound. The French horns also were in demand throughout the whole program, and played those transparent segments beautifully.
The slow movement was not so slow. When asked about his choice of tempo in the discussion afterward, Li spoke about the flexibility needed when conducting different orchestras. The conductor must be sensitive -- a true "Largo" at that point would have been needlessly demanding of the players and their instruments, and the sound was better at the quicker pace. Even as familiar as this work is, the orchestra made moments of beautiful magic. They have never sounded better!
Li has a style of conducting which is crisp and precise on the right, and expressive and specific to the moment on the left. There was such a clear division of business between his hands that at times it was a study in textbook conducting and he appeared ambidextrous. He was in control of the orchestra at all times -- tempo changes, dynamics, musical nuances. There was a nice continuous movement of the hands between the first two movements of the von Weber, sending a clear signal that applause was not to occur if there had been any question. He was gracious and relaxed throughout and was at home with this program of Romantic music, and probably any other style as well.
At the end, the audience showed their rousing approval of the evening with numerous Bravos! No doubt this orchestra would be in excellent hands if this very capable conductor comes to stay.