The review below appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of April 22, 2001.
As the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra conductor race enters its final lap, it becomes ever more fascinating.
Friday evening's concert in Popejoy Hall by Paul Polivnick, the eighth of ten candidates, found the orchestra making another chameleon-like change to match the vision of its leader for the night. And what an arresting vision it was, unlike any before, a complete world unto itself.
Above all, it was a world of color, sensuous and subtle. Polivnick's sensitivity to timbre and the keenness of his ear set him off from any previous candidate. He widened the orchestra's palette, gave it more shade, and cleaned it up. He approached each piece like a painter before his canvas, carefully selecting his tones, shaping precisely their placement, the juxtapositions and the surrounding space.
From the delicacy of the opening measures of Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture to the majestic swell of the closing movement of Saint-Säens' Third Symphony, Polivnick infused the performers with his concept. For the two hours of this evening, orchestra, chorus and soloists seemed to hear with his ears, to acquire his finesse and restraint, all conveyed in an unaffected conducting style of quiet intensity.
Polivnick is currently music director of the Oberlin Conservatory's orchestras and of the New Hampshire Music Festival. He has led orchestras both here and abroad, including the London Symphony Orchestra, the Korean Symphony, and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, which he headed up for eight years. His training includes violin and conducting studies at Juilliard.
Polivnick opened up with a shimmering version of the Russian Easter Overture in a delicate yet satisfying treatment. Concertmaster Krzysztof Zimowski, flutist Valerie Potter, trombonist Byron Herrington and cellist Joan Zucker all contributed finely shaped solos, which continued to be the rule in the various orchestral solos of the evening.
Solidly prepared by their director, Roger Melone, the NMSO Chorus also seemed to fall under Polivnick's spell in the Fauré Requiem that followed. Their sound had a softer edge, their phrasing a more rounded shape, their line a more varied contour. Baritone James Demler and particularly soprano Patti Spain delivered expressive solos. Occasionally Polivnick pushed the edge of the ethereal envelope too far, scaling the music's rhythmic thrust down to near inertia.
Like many of his fellow contenders, Polivnick devoted the second half of the program to a big symphonic work. Not surprisingly given its distinctive coloration, he chose for his showpiece the Saint-Säens Third, nicknamed the Organ Symphony for its distinctive use of that instrument.
His sense of proportion and precise deployment of color served the music well. The succession of mini-climaxes that characterize Saint-Säens' style were deftly handled. The grand orchestral swells, especially in the final section, generated richness without loss of clarity. Rather than the generalized wash of sound produced by some others this season, his orchestral tuttis had a finely calibrated texture that kept the various colors audible.
The Adagio section unfolded with seamless elegance; the second movement possessed real muscle and forward momentum, matters sometimes at risk in Polivnick's very pure connection to sound.