BRITISH MASTERWORK ENLIVENS AMBITIOUS
FESTIVAL MIAMI CONCERT
By Lawrence Budmen
Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was the dominant creative voice of British music in the late 19th and early 20th century. A Brahmsian by temperament and artistic principles, Elgar combined the Romantic tradition with a decidedly nationalistic sensibility. Elgar's late works are distinguished by an autumnal nobility and mastery of form. The chamber music scores (the String Quartet in E Minor, Opus 83 and the Piano Quintet in A Minor, Opus 84) are marked by superbly inventive instrumental writing and strongly felt musical statements. Even greater clarity and expressivity are the hallmarks of Elgar's great "Concerto for Violincello in E Minor," Opus 85 (1919). While the score requires a cellist of protean technique and artistry, this is not a display piece in the 19th century sense. Elgar's long spun lyricism and instrumental grandeur speak eloquently in this unique score. Cellists from Pablo Casals and Emanuel Feuermann to Jacqueline Du Pre, Lynn Harrell, Y0-Yo Ma, and Steven Isserlis have been drawn to this British masterpiece. The soaring musical evocation of Elgar's Cello Concerto opened an ambitious Festival Miami concert on October 1 at the UM Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables. (This concert was originally scheduled to open Festival Miami 2004 on September 25 but was delayed by Hurricane Jeanne.)
Ross Harbaugh, a longtime member of the UM Phillip and Patricia Frost School of Music faculty, was a compelling soloist in Elgar's elegiac score. This work has been a specialty (a near signature piece) of Harbaugh's teacher - the great Hungarian cellist Janos Starker. While best known as a chamber musician, Harbaugh is a commanding solo instrumentalist. His vigorous, assured attack in the opening cadenza set the pace for a performance that captured the score's tragic yearning yet did not shortchange the music's surging emotional climaxes. Harbaugh's spacious, aristocratic phrasing of the memorable theme in the first movement's Moderato section caught the score's mellow twilight glow. His dashing treatment of the Allegro molto had just the right touch of serious bravura. The romantic nostalgia of the Adagio found lyrical expression in Harbaugh's warm, singing tone. Harbaugh tossed off the pyrotechnical hurdles of the Allegro finale yet also found the music's tragic (post World War 1) subtext. While Harbaugh's traversal of this masterpiece was emotionally somewhat coolly cerebral, his elegantly sculptured shaping of the melodic lines did justice to this memorable work. He was aided and abetted by conductor Thomas Sleeper whose shapely, unhurried account of the score was frequently eloquent. After some initially tentative playing, the University of Miami Symphony Orchestra performed with increasing confidence and assurance.
Carlisle Floyd (1926- ) is one of America's best known opera composers. His "Susannah" and "Of Mice and Men" have become American classics. "Willie Stark," Floyd's setting of Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" may be a neglected masterpiece. In the early 1970's Floyd composed "Pilgrimage," a biblical song cycle, for the late American bass Norman Treigle. A thoughtfully conceived, accessible work, "Pilgrimage" is not first class Floyd. Much of the score brings to mind Aaron Copland on one of his less inspired days. Yet Floyd's hymn like setting of Psalms 148-149 "Praise the Lord, O my Soul" is marvelously stirring. The concluding "For I am Persuaded" (Romans 8) is warmly lyrical, pure Americana. There is surprising dissonance and astringency (for Floyd) in "Save me, O Lord, for the waters are come unto my soul." This Festival Miami revival was a welcome opportunity to explore the by ways of a celebrated American composer's creative oeuvre. Bass baritone Donnie Ray Albert imbued each of the five sections with intense, dramatic power. Except for some strain at the upper reaches of his voluminous voice, Albert sang with a dark, golden, evenly produced flow of tonal beauty. (Albert was an impressive "Rigoletto" at Florida Grand Opera a decade ago. More recently he has played Wotan in Wagner's "Ring" cycle. A specialist in contemporary opera, Albert is now in rehearsal for the premiere of William Bolcom's "A Wedding" - based on the Robert Altman film - at Lyric Opera of Chicago.) Floyd could not have wished for a more dedicated interpreter. Albert's performance was memorable! Sleeper's idiomatic support was admirable. The orchestra played the score with fluency and remarkable professionalism.
While Richard Strauss's "Tod und Verklarung" ("Death and Transfiguration"), Opus 24 may not seem like typical repertoire for a student orchestra, Sleeper and his eager musicians gave a surprisingly accomplished performance of this moving Strauss showpiece. While there were prominent fluffs in the brass, the wind playing was strong. Beautifully articulated solos by the first chair oboe and flute riveted attention. The first violin, viola, and cello played the Viennesse chamber music section with warmth and stylish schmaltz. Sleeper commanded a remarkably large, solid tone from the strings (with shimmering harp glissandos). Strauss's gorgeous peaks of sound were well served. Sleeper is a first class Strauss conductor! His thoughtfully conceived, powerfully shaped reading often achieved eloquence and beauty. His affinity for Strauss's long limbed melodies was special. The moving power of Strauss's beautiful score was well served!
Festival Miami again brought students and veteran professionals together for a stimulating evening of music. With the combination of an interesting revival by a prominent American composer and compelling performances of serene masterworks from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Festival Miami's second decade is off and running. A worthy evening of fine music making!