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December 1, 1999

Beethoven, Bluejeans, and a Speck of Story

A Review by Pat and Ernie Pinson

The November 20 laid back performance of the Mobile Symphony was quite a change from the concert last month. Of course, this annual event is sorta like going to a rehearsal rather than a formal concert. It is odd how much we associate black formal dress with these events, and the nicely matched stonewashed blue denim is almost dis"concerting" which is what the original intention must certainly have been.

Opening with the obligatory Beethoven (which everyone loves), the performance began with a story instead of a crashing chord. Scott Speck, the second in the years' conductor invitational, strode easily on stage and took the microphone before taking the baton, and proceeded to lay out the plot of the opera, Fidelio, as it applied to the Leonore Overture. Then the orchestra seemed to spin out the story instead of stunning the audience. The music was almost introspective at times, quiet and in no hurry. Here, Speck's background in Baroque and Classical period music came through in the unusual clarity of the turns and trills of the theme. But the presto closing of the work picked up the pace dramatically and was especially well played by the strings who had a profusion of runs.

The Philip Glass "Funeral" from the 1984 opera Akhnaton, was written for Jerome Robbins to choreograph and Speck described it as hypnotic and would lull you into an altered state if not careful. Underlying tribal drums provided a driving pulse, and the percussive piano, synthesizer, blasting trombones, twittering woodwinds and busy strings made this work a study in textures. Called "minimalist" music, it used only a few chords throughout, but the colors were constantly terraced into new shades in the onrush of sound. Speck was very precise in his conducting of this work and the orchestra stayed with him growing to an intense crescendo and then, it just stopped. This modern work was well received by the audience and at the "Talk Back" session after the concert, it got rousing approval.

The very Russian sounding Polovtsian Dances rounded out the first half, and here the woodwinds carried the texture almost in a pointillistic way as Borodin created the haunting atmosphere of Eastern Europe. They recalled the old Janizary bands with their tambourines and triangles, but these reedy instruments were cultivated into elegant phrases and nuance of tone.

The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was declared "unplayable" when it was written. Noted critic Eduard Hanslick wrote on first hearing this concerto that the violin is "yanked about, torn asunder, and beaten black and blue." But Ayano Ninomiya, featured soloist of the evening played it with confidence and poise. She is a twenty year old slip of a girl -- in blue jeans, tee shirt and a pony tail -- who first performed this work at age 14. Can you imagine her calmly matching performances with the violin virtuosos of history? And isn't it amazing how quickly musical technique develops. Sometimes maturity of expression lags behind, but Ninomiya played the poignant Russian melodies with soul and the double and triple stops with assurance. Tchaikovsky would have been pleased. The Mobile audience certainly was -- they gave her a standing ovation after the brilliant close of the first movement, and again at the end. Bravo!

Speck brings another whole attitude to the Mobile Symphony -- although his conducting seems a little wooden at times, he is still in control and has clear goals in his interpretation. Being an avowed scholar (of excellent quality from his credentials) and even a collaborative author, he brings insight to the works through his extemporaneous and witty comments. He seeks to inform in order to make the music exciting. And he succeeds.

Choosing a permanent conductor for the symphony will be hard. The first two candidates have both been excellent but very different. The choice of the Orchestra and the Board will not necessarily be one based on which is the better quality, but one which will determine the path to follow in fulfilling the Mobile music scene in the future. Not an easy task, but they can hardly go wrong at this point.

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