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NMSO concert review: Beethoven/Prokofiev, Dec. 15, 2000

The review below appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of December 17, 2000.

NMSO concert vivid, sensitive

by Joanne Sheehy Hoover

This past weekend was the 230th anniversary of Beethoven's birth. David Wiley, this month's contender for the director's baton of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, marked the event with the work that everyone knows, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

It was both a clever and a bold stroke. Clever, because the work pulls in the crowds, and Popejoy Hall on Friday night was indeed full. Bold, because it invites reams of comparison and an interpretation can easily slip into formula.

With the confidence of talent and youth (he is only 34), Wiley charged forth in a tight, compact performance. In the words of one audience member sitting nearby, ``he nailed it.'' But then if your musical life started at age 10 playing the piano in your own concerto with a professional orchestra in Boston, as Wiley's did, challenges may be commonplace.

Wiley seems to have packed a lot into his three decades. His background includes a degree in religion, summa cum laude, from Tufts University, along with triple degrees in music: an undergraduate in piano from the New England Conservatory, a master's and doctorate in conducting from Indiana University. Currently in his fifth season as music director of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra in Virginia, he has also served as assistant conductor for both the Minnesota and Indianapolis orchestras and the Aspen Music Festival.

He has continued to compose, with three piano concertos as well as symphonic and vocal works to his credit. It was his perceptions as a composer that made his performance distinctive Friday night. The program choice itself offered a hint. He opened with something American and current from one of this country's major living composers. John Harbison's Remembering Gatsby, Foxtrot for Orchestra, a short jazzy work from 1985, foreshadows his opera based on Scott Fitzgerald's novel that premiered at the Met as the century ended.

Next came The Unanswered Question, a totally original work of 1906 from one of America's most totally original composers, Charles Ives, followed by the groundbreaker from another century, Beethoven. The second half was devoted to Sergei Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, a cantata for chorus and orchestra based on music from Sergei Eisenstein's classic 1938 movie, the Russian cinematic genius' first sound film. Sharp and explosive, it reflects the creative response of a composer to what was then a new medium. Prokofiev even went to Hollywood and boned up on the technical side of integrating music and film.

As the evening progressed, Wiley's intent became crystal clear. Not interested in prepackaged polish, he was shifting the emphasis from performance back to the composer. He sought to give the music room to speak in its own terms, to get back into the heart of the composer's thought. He wanted to investigate and illuminate, not impose.

He pushed the orchestra to grow as musicians, not just performers. They played with a different kind of involvement. Less surface emotion and energy, more thought and depth, a new seriousness. He revealed a particularly vivid rhythmic sense and a keen sensitivity to the narrative flow. His sure grasp of the overall structure made the Beethoven unfold as if one continuous thought.

Some performance details were overlooked. The Harbison and Ives were shortchanged with balances and ensemble not precise. Throughout Wiley paid attention to music gestures, bringing out moments when Beethoven was erupting or surprising even himself with a lyrical outburst, or stressing the importance of silences in the Ives work. In the evening's showpiece, Alexander Nevsky, he kept clear command of the large resources with a forceful performance that skillfully explored the score's rich contrasts in texture, color and mood.

With dark velvet tones and expressive inflection, mezzo-soprano Kathleen Clawson made a passionate soloist in the sixth movement's lament for the dead. The NMSO chorus, solidly prepared by its director Roger Melone, had the raw power and gritty sound which the score demands, as well as clearly articulated Russian.

Next: NMSO concert review: Bernstein/Verdi, Oct. 13, 2000
See also: New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Chorus: schedule and reviews, 1995–2011
Previous: NMSO concert review: Bach/Mass in B Minor, Apr. 5, 2001
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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 2000/12/18 22:08:42