Robert Spano is one of America’s finest conductors. An occasional guest with the New World Symphony, Spano returned to South Florida Wednesday night with the Curtis Chamber Orchestra, a 39-member student ensemble from Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. The Friends of Chamber Music concert at Gusman Concert Hall featured a fine new viola concerto and one of Spano’s own scores as well as masterpieces by Prokofiev and Mozart.
Jennifer Higdon, a Curtis faculty member and Pulitzer Prize winner, composes in a tonal, conservative style, but there is nothing stuffy or derivative in her music. Higdon’s Viola Concerto (which was premiered last Saturday in Washington) was written for Curtis president Roberto Diaz, former principal viola of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The concerto is a significant addition to the solo literature for the instrument. Cast in three compact movements, the melodic writing plays to the instrument’s darkness of tone. In the opening movement, the viola’s deep sonority is offset by pointed wind figures. Country fiddling propels the central movement with mallet percussion playing a prominent role. In the finale, long, expansive melodic phrases and rapid folksy motifs suggest a touch of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, with the solo viola at one point joined by violin and cello in an impromptu trio.
Higdon could not have wished for a better performance. Diaz showed complete command of his wonderful Amati instrument, his rich, full tone and agility highlighting the concerto’s inspired invention. In the second movement, Diaz’s intonation remained flawless, even in the instrument’s high register, as he tackled Higdon’s virtuosic passages at a rapid-fire pace.
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Spano and the orchestra managed the tricky rhythms adroitly, with the gleaming brass standing out. Higdon’s splendidly crafted concerto was enthusiastically received.
Spano’s Hölderlin Songs are settings of three poems by Friedrich Hölderlin, an 18th-century poet greatly admired by artists of the romantic era. The music clearly reflects Spano’s enthusiasm for the work of Strauss and Wagner. While the first two songs are brief, darkly romantic vignettes, the final setting, “An die Parzen” is an overblown Wagnerian oration that hovers somewhere between Isolde’s Liebestod and the quieter moments of Brunhilde’s Immolation Scene.
Curtis vocal student Rachel Sterrenberg coped skillfully with the high vocal writing and heavy orchestration. Her gorgeous lower register imbued the long-winded final song with needed poignancy.
The concert opened with a crisply articulated reading of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 (Classical), the composer’s sly homage to Haydn and Mozart. Balancing classicism and wit, Spano brought out the silky string lines of the Larghetto and captured the quirky syncopation of the Gavotte in vivacious manner.
Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C Major (Jupiter) concluded the evening, bringing the program full circle back to one of the greatest symphonies of the classical era. Spano drew a bright and polished performance, far above the student level, highlighting a wealth of detail in the wind and brass writing that often gets obscured.
The Friends of Chamber Music season continues with Chamber Orchestra Kremlin conducted by Misha Rachlevsky playing Rossini’s String Sonata No.3, Prokofiev’s ‘Visions Fugitives,’ Tchaikovsky’s ‘Serenade for Strings’ and Saint-Saëns’ ‘Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso’ with violin soloist Ariel Horowitz. 4 p.m. March 22 at UM Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables. miamichambermusic.org; 305-372-2975.
For complete coverage of classical music, go to SouthFloridaClassicalReview.com