The Austin Chronicle


Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Jerry Young, September 17, 2004, Arts

Austin Symphony Orchestra With Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth

Bass Concert Hall, Sept. 10

The Austin Symphony Orchestra's season opener always begins with the national anthem, which Peter Bay always conducts at a strict tempo, with the beats spaced as evenly as the stars that spangle the banner. But it is no day at the park for the audience of volunteer singers who expects rest stops at the end of every phrase; Bay withholds the ritards, which prompts an Ivesian scramble among the choral volunteers as they try to catch up with the orchestra at the beginning of each phrase.

The concert proper began with a rousing, Technicolor performance of the overture to Verdi's La Forza del Destino, a CliffsNotes musical summary of the opera. Bay gave full expression to the dramatic emotional swings of the opera in the space of seven minutes. Bay didn't hold back much, but sometimes letting the brass play out caused the orchestra to lose balance as the strings were overwhelmed in the stormy tutti sections.

Brahms' Concerto for Violin & Cello is the hardest of his concertos to sell. It doesn't have one of those signature, orchestra-rallying melodies, so you're more apt to walk away from it whistling something from Brahms' Violin Concerto. Instead, in it Brahms offers a series of musical pas de deux, using his constantly unfolding lines to weave violin and cello together, sometimes in an intertwining dialog, occasionally at odds with each other, and at times joining together to form a large eight-stringed instrument to bear the weight of Brahms' gamut-spanning figurations.

The performance was meticulously plotted and expertly realized in great detail, but surprisingly lacking in the sort of interplay that a work like this especially needs. The playing by violinist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Amanda Forsyth was individually brilliant, always spinning out pliable, expressive lines without sacrificing classical clarity, but neither musician seemed particularly engaged in the partnering – certainly never as convincing as the woodwind pairings in the Bartók that followed. The orchestral sound was full-bodied, though noticeably restrained, with the violins providing a verdant cover for Zukerman to retreat to and make entrances from.

If Verdi's overture gives a foretaste of all of the dramatic themes of Forza del Destino, Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra summarizes a lifetime of musical influences: Bach, folk music, and cutting-edge orchestral modernism. It's a huge diagnostic test to begin a season with, and Bay and the orchestra proved themselves in good form on most counts.

The performance emphasized Bartók's coloristic scoring and quirky, propulsive rhythms, and it gave further evidence of the ASO's individual strengths and sense of its collective identity. The heart of the orchestra remains the wind section, which has been its greatest strength for the past three decades, and nowhere was this more impressive than the woodwind pairings in the second movement. The parts were so seamlessly matched that you couldn't slide a piece of paper between the lines.

Bay showed a great sense for adjusting balances, especially to air out the softer, harp-scented timbres, such as in the fugal passage in the finale. But in louder full-orchestra passages, violins were sometimes hard to hear. They were not alone in that regard; subordinate lines were often not voiced clearly enough to follow them through.

But Bay scores high on the bigger balancing act: doing justice to Verdi, Brahms, and Bartók while maintaining the enthusiasm of his orchestra and its audience.

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