Executing and enjoying live music has become somewhat of an anomaly in the age of the coronavirus.
But a tiny in-person audience of no more than 40 members of the University of Miami community (plus more than one thousand more viewers worldwide via an online YouTube livestream) had the privilege to revel in the eloquent, near-professional artistry of the Frost School of Music’s elite symphonic ensembles last Monday night.
The second Frost Orchestras concert of 2021, titled “Celebrations,” took place in Gusman Concert Hall at the UM Coral Gables campus on March 22.
With more student-musicians returning to Miami for face-to-face education this spring, the school was tasked to divide all its instrumentalists into two medium-sized ensembles — the familiar Frost Symphony Orchestra (FSO), paired with a new, slightly smaller Frost Chamber Orchestra (FCO) — in order to prevent crowded stages and cultivate a safe, physically-distanced environment for performers.
Covering the program’s first half, the FCO, comprised of roughly 25 musicians, was a perfect fit for the evening’s opening piece penned for a miniature orchestra: “Siegfried Idyll” (1870), a romantic tone poem by Richard Wagner.
Under the baton of the august Maestro Gerard Schwarz, distinguished professor of music at Frost, a downsized but confident string section introduced Wagner’s airy E major theme and conveyed the image of a spring morning on the countryside. The cellos united with the violins, their voices gently overlapping, and the players were solidly in tune, both pitch-wise and rhythmically.
“Siegfried Idyll” presents interpretative challenges in the form of intricately-scored musical dialogues between the instrument families. But the FCO exhibited a well-disciplined understanding of the work’s conversational nature.
Memorable moments include Schwarz’s defined cue for a glowing flute entrance and a sturdy French horn solo intoned by Peter McFarland, a graduate Artist Diploma candidate in horn performance at Frost.
While some modern performances of this work are commercialized with an excessively slow tempo, Schwarz adhered to the German composer’s modest marking — “ruhig bewegt,” meaning “peaceful, with movement” — and kept the ensemble on its toes with a flowing, not overdone pace.
Next on the program was Aaron Copland’s “Music for the Theatre” (1925). Paying homage to the Roaring Twenties, this suite for chamber orchestra is bursting with idioms of jazz and Americana and reminiscences of George Gershwin’s landmark composition, “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Fearless blasts of the FCO’s trumpet section from the get-go captured the five-movement suite’s allover whimsical flair. The resonant percussion, winds and brass and occasional sprinklings of piano gave way to a mightier sonic fullness from the ensemble in contrast to the preceding Wagner.
The collective shift in color from the sultry aura of the Interlude (starring the sole English horn’s blues-inspired monologue) to the laughable Burlesque (pioneered by a stomping cello and double bass motif) was especially remarkable.
The FSO dominated the second half of the night, commencing with the world premiere of “Elegy (to those we lost)” (2020) by American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Originally conceived for a solo pianist last May and later expanded for a symphony, this moving composition honors the thousands of lives taken by the COVID-19 crisis.
Schwarz stepped onto the podium and regarded the “Elegy” as a “six-minute masterpiece.” The orchestra most definitely followed through on his praise, delivering an exceptionally heartfelt and emotional reading of the tribute.
All the strings took flight at once, encapsulating the composer’s agony with strength and unity in vibrato. As the music’s tonality toggled between major and minor, reflecting the nonstop tribulations and glimmers of hope surrounding the pandemic, the group’s expressivity as a whole never fell flat. Schwarz sustained vigor in his direction toward a sudden, yet heavenly closing cadence in C major.
To round out the evening, a faintly larger FSO filled the hall for Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E minor (1884). Unfortunately, this rendering of a 19th-century Western classic got off on the wrong foot.
The violin section could’ve taken an extra breath before landing rather clunkily on the first pitch of the Allegro non troppo, and its singing, swaying melody felt rushed and not grounded. By the midpoint of the Allegro’s exposition, however, the ensemble had recovered and thus proceeded in harmony.
Schwarz didn’t hesitate to take charge of both the Andante moderato and Allegro giocoso movements at notably speedier pulses than the norm. But his protégés stepped up to the plate, maintaining a buoyant animation sans lagging behind.
The highlight of the Finale? And possibly the entire show? An explosive section of cellists led by Ruth Stokes, a junior Stamps Scholar majoring in cello performance. With tightly-cohesive bowings and an all-around extraordinary depth of passion, every spotlight on the cellos turned the audience’s heads. Such forceful playing —by students! — was a testament to Brahms’s masterful writing for the instrument.
The Maestro conducts the Frost Orchestras in concert once more this semester. “Classics” will be livestreamed at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 17. No tickets are necessary. Simply tune into the Frost School of Music’s official YouTube channel and bask in the glory of Mozart, Chopin, Kay and Dvorak!
words_gianna milan photo_julio rionaldo on unsplash