SSO opens with a hot and cold show

03. Nov. 2007 – The Stamford Symphony opened its 2007-08 season Oct. 6 with a program called "Fire & Ice" that opened with a piece by Miguel Del cguila called "Conga-Line in Hell." A metric labyrinth, the chamber orchestra - consisting of single strings and winds tuba, harp, percussion and piano - generated a rich tapestry of sound. Emily Wong played the soloistic piano part with strong dance energy and the woodwind playing, particularly the jazzy clarinet lines played by Jon Manasse, came across with charisma.


The performance worked; the piece itself did not. It sounded more like "Conga-Line on the Love Boat." Aside from a few interesting textural collisions at the opening and a couple scattered moments, it was dull and most of its compositional ideas lost focus. There was also no off-switch for this conga-line.


Andrew Armstrong joined the orchestra for the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4. Armstrong played a sensitive cadenza in the opening movement in which his interpretation of this work seemed to crystallize. He was seeking the human and reflective side of a concerto often played as if the outer movements were Olympic events. Armstrong has a deeply shaded and colorful palette for quiet sounds that make his technical command seem even more explosive. The exit from this first movement cadenza, where the orchestra supports and continues a trill that does not resolve as expected, was the most magical moment of the evening. Throughout the third movement, it was the warmness of sound that mattered in a convincing interpretation.


After intermission, we heard the Sibelius fifth symphony. Conductor Eckart Preu characterized one aspect of this symphony as being "touching in its awkwardness." He was referring to the closing gestures of each movement, gestures that many conductors feel they must find ways of changing to make a more normalized impression. Preu was preparing us to hear them the way they were written, which of course, is preferable.


The feel of this symphony is more about becoming than being. And debates among scholars about the form of the first movement come from trying to add signposts that are stationary and fixed. Preu made the movement coherent, developing the layer of motion that starts as a background figure during the second rotation of themes, and by carefully attending to the tempo increases that drive the movement. The moment of transformation into a scherzo was marked by a dancing energy from the woodwinds; the entire section giving a physical sense of sway to welcome this dance music.


The performance was marked by first-rate horn playing. Julia Pilant led an outstanding section from the opening gestures through the majestic swan-theme of the final movement.


Typical of the electrifying sectional string playing was the exotic passage in G-flat marked "Misterioso" in the final movement. Muted and divisi the SSO strings delivered this passage cleanly with absolute precision and transparency. It was a breathtaking motion toward the final six chords played in tempo-the unexpected "ice" - that closed a performance that was on fire.



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