Review: Philharmonic shows panache on program perfectly highlighting its players

Contributing Culture CriticNovember 16, 2013 

Pianists Sonya, left, and Elizabeth Schumann perform Friday and Sunday with the Lexington Philharmonic.

COURTESY OF THE SCHUMANN PIANO DUO

The Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Scott Terrell regaled Friday night’s audience in the Singletary Center for the Arts with a polished program that spotlighted many of the orchestra’s principal players.

The evening began with symphonic excerpts from Engelbert Humperdinck’s beloved opera Hansel and Gretel. From the start, it was evident this was going to be an excellent evening for the orchestra, with the French horn section playing beautifully in the exposed quiet opening of the Prelude. The Witch’s Ride was a little messy in places, a fault of too stolid rather than too fleet a tempo on Terrell’s part. The Dance Pantomime was gorgeously rendered, with rich, warm sound ennobling the flavorfully articulated counterpoint. The woodwinds in particular played with burnished tone and impeccable ensemble.

Sibling pianists Elizabeth and Sonya Schumann then joined the orchestra for Camille Saint-Saëns’ whimsical suite Carnival of the Animals. As a duo piano vehicle, this piece offers modest opportunities for real virtuosity, but the sisters found all the color and expression they could in the music, and brought them forth winsomely, and when called for, with perfect synchronicity. The audience actually murmured with appreciation after their ravishing playing of the accompanimental texture in Tortoises. Likewise, Aquarium was exquisitely performed by the pianists and orchestra. Clarinetist Michael Acord and flutist Pei-San Chiu contributed shining moments, but two other orchestral soloist features stole the show: Jim Campbell’s awesome precision on the xylophone in Fossils and, the highlight of the whole evening, Benjamin Karp’s ethereal, heartfelt rendition of The Swan, one of the most beautiful cello solos in the repertoire.

The orchestra continued its impressive display after intermission with a professional traversal of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka. This ballet score, heard here in its 1947 version, is a veritable showcase for orchestra, and the Philharmonic rose to the occasion with flair and distinction. Chiu filled the many flute solos with character and vitality, and oboist Aryn Day Sweeney communicated poignancy and pluck. David Powell gave a haunted, wailing quality to the English horn solos. The trumpets, led by principal Stephen Campbell, were mostly accurate in their tricky rhythms, capably carrying much of the melodic burden throughout the piece. The orchestral pianist Mark Tollefsen also played splendidly, given the opportunity by Stravinsky for more virtuosic showmanship as a mere instrumental color than Saint-Saëns gave the two featured pianists in his zoological romp.

The strings of the orchestra always sound beautiful, but I wish Terrell would allow them more presence in the instrumental mix. Several times during Petrushka, I observed him gesturing for them to play softer just when I was hoping he would have them swell. Strings are the heart and soul of the orchestra and should be granted prominence more often than not.

Terrell’s conducting holds the ensemble together efficiently and clearly. He is not demonstrative, emotionally or even musically, on the podium, which sometimes leaves the impression that all the expression is coming from the players rather than the conductor. This is refreshing and disconcerting. It could be strategic genius, to let the superb players of the orchestra call their own musical shots.

Tedrin Blair Lindsay is a musician, theater artist and lecturer at the University of Kentucky.

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