Archive for Monday, January 22, 2007

Review: Conductor lets the musicians be the stars

Symphonica Toscanini played Sunday night at the Lied Center

January 22, 2007

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Take all your stereotypes about a world-class orchestra conductor and throw them out the window.

Lorin Maazel didn't use the dramatic motions or have the cocky stage presence you might expect from one of the most famous conductors in the world.

Rather, when he led the Symphonica Toscanini Sunday night at the Lied Center, his understated directing demeanor let the musicians on stage be the stars - and they took full advantage of the opportunity.

The orchestra is making its way across the United States as part of celebrations honoring the 50th anniversary of the death of famed Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini.

About 120 musicians are touring with the voracity of a hungry rock band. They have 14 tour dates in 16 days (Sunday's was the ninth). On Jan. 16, they played a joint concert with the New York Philharmonic, which Maazel also conducts.

Sunday's performance offered a Lawrence audience a rare chance to hear a full symphony orchestra at the Lied Center, much less one that is comprised of top-class musicians. Most of the group's members are young Italian players who could be soloists in their own right.

The first half of the concert was filled with the familiar melodies from the overture from the "Barber of Seville" and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 Op. 90 in A Major. From the beginning, these works showed the musicians' precision, and that precision and sensitivity came with ease no matter the dynamic level they were playing at, or in what style.

The entire concert was well-balanced, but the Mendelssohn symphony in particular sounded like a well-produced recording, with no mixing required. The fourth movement in particular ("Presto") was blazing fast, with each musician treating the quick runs with the same seriousness, whether it was in the spotlight or in a supporting role.

The second half of the performance was comprised of two works by Respighi - "Fountains of Rome" and "Pines of Rome." Both works, while not having the same focus as the pieces performed in the first half, are filled with beautiful melodic lines that come and go, leaving the listener with a sense of fantasy that leads to reflection.

It was the little things that made the pieces work - the way a tiny clarinet tone came out from a full orchestra chord that was suddenly dampened; the consistent wind solos, especially on clarinet, flute and oboe; and the precise percussion additions to add the fantastical sense.

The finale to the "Pines of Rome" showed off the orchestra's full sound, bringing a loud reminder of how wonderful it was to have a world-class orchestra on stage.

As an encore, the Symphonica Toscanini played Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G Minor, bringing the full performance to around two hours.

In all actuality, even with his impressive credentials, Maazel might not have needed to be on stage most of the night, since the musicians seemed to be honed in on one another. No doubt, however, his preparation before the tour made the orchestra that way.

And, obviously, Maazel is the type of conductor who doesn't need to have an imposing presence. He commands attention from his musicians no matter what.

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