Curtis musicians bring the sound of renewal to Verizon

Conducting student Vinay Parameswaran led the Curtis Symphony Orchestra in the Philadelphia premiere of "Fanfare for Sam," a tribute to Curtis luminary Samuel Barber composed by David Ludwig, and then in Barber's own "Adagio for Strings."
Conducting student Vinay Parameswaran led the Curtis Symphony Orchestra in the Philadelphia premiere of "Fanfare for Sam," a tribute to Curtis luminary Samuel Barber composed by David Ludwig, and then in Barber's own "Adagio for Strings." (DAVID DeBALKO)
Posted: October 25, 2011

With its recent tumult of labor strife and money woes, the Kimmel Center seems an unlikely site to stage a musical spring. Yet there it was last weekend, the irrepressible stirring of renewal.

At Saturday morning's first Philadelphia Orchestra family concert this year, cellist John-Henry Crawford, 18, a Curtis student and winner in the orchestra's Albert M. Greenfield Student Competition, projected polished charisma and a singing sound in the first movement of Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto.

His was only one voice among a hundred the next afternoon at the season's first outing of the Curtis Institute of Music orchestra beyond its luxurious new tailor-built rehearsal room. The ensemble was sturdy and promising, but wisps of optimism could be traced to the performance space itself. Verizon Hall, the subject of a $2 million acoustical remediation during the last two summers, can finally be judged, if only provisionally at this point in the young season. In Saturday's quick succession of works by Wagner, Grieg, Stravinsky, and Humperdinck led by Cristian Macelaru, the Philadelphia Orchestra had a sense of immediacy it never had before.

On Sunday, the Curtis orchestra's Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 under the energetic Michael Stern was an even better crucible. After an enervating start (a few cracks in the trumpet section), marvelous strokes of individuality emerged: a focused and mellow timpani sound from Yi Fei Fu, the supple shaping of solos by oboist Samuel Nemec, and a cello section of surprising depth and maturity in the second movement. The pleasantly ringing sound of piccolo player Bile Zhang in the third movement surpassed many a spin through the same passages by professional counterparts.

The membership of this orchestra of course changes from year to year, but with youth always comes a certain brightness - more so on this occasion. It wasn't clear to me in the Tchaikovsky, or in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, that the orchestra could hear itself better than before, one of the goals of the acoustic project. From the other side of the footlights, however, the double-bass section (on the highest level of risers, behind the first violins) glowed with a discernible presence. The symphony's famous pizzicato movement had both clarity and warmth.

It does not seem that Verizon's destiny is to be an orchestra hall that flatters with a contribution of its own, in the way Carnegie Hall and Vienna's Musikverein do, but rather a faithful conveyor of the sound of its already-great resident ensembles. If the venue can be a vessel for tradition-keeping from an acoustical perspective, it will have all been worth it.

Curtis being Curtis, tradition wasn't spelled out in the program, but a certain dynastic quality pervaded. Conductor Stern is the son of violinist Isaac. Pianist Jonathan Biss, soloist in the Beethoven, is a Curtis graduate who studied with Leon Fleisher, and is the son of violinists Paul Biss and Miriam Fried. His grandmother was cellist Raya Garbousova, for whom Curtis star Samuel Barber composed his Cello Concerto.

The pianist is a subtle artist; he foreshadowed his interpretive ideas for the entire piece in just the first few piano-alone bars. Some might think him conservative, and while he can be understated, he is constantly probing. With an emphasis here, a dynamic heightening there, he suggested meaning in the music you might never have considered.

Curtis has a way of pointing to the past and future simultaneously, and the Philadelphia premiere of Fanfare for Sam did so in more ways than were obvious on paper. Its composer, David Ludwig, was of course referring in the title to Samuel Barber, but Ludwig has a more familial connection to the school; his grandfather was Rudolph Serkin, the pianist and onetime Curtis director.

Birthrights don't matter after the downbeat, however, and the piece more than proved itself. Fanfare is clever - going from emulating an orchestra tuning up right into the searing opening B flat of Barber's Adagio for Strings, and ending on a C major chord, the C for Curtis. To dwell on symbolism, though, would be to slight intrinsic musical substance. Led by conducting student Vinay Parameswaran - as was the Adagio for Strings immediately following - Fanfare is an urgent overture with splashes of intriguing sound and motion. Its general character morphs wondrously in a short span.

Ludwig doesn't ape Barber, but he does avenge him in a way. It can be heard as Ludwig's argument that as much as his predecessor was criticized for the accessibility of his music in an age that was generally moving the other way, Barber had it right.


Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.

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