By Lawrence Budmen

The British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Dona Nobis Pacem" is a deeply moving plea for peace. The composer used texts from the Latin mass for the dead, the poems of Walt Whitman and John Bright, and the scriptures of the Old Testament. This impressive score remains deeply relevant in a troubled world. The large scale work is scored for chorus, orchestra, and two vocal soloists. This rarely performed music brought an eloquent conclusion to the 2002 FIU Music Festival on November 15 at Miami Beach's Lincoln Theater. The concert marked the debut of the Scottish born maestro Stewart Robertson as principal conductor of the FIU Symphony Orchestra.

Vaughan Williams was one of England's most prolific composers. He wrote nine symphonies, four operas, and numerous choral, orchestral, and chamber works. His musical palette draws on British folk songs (one of this composer's particular interests), protestant hymns, wind band marches, and Stravinsky inspired rhythm and dissonance. The score is filled with moments of tender musical repose, punctuated with stormy choral outbursts and reflective ariosos for the soloists. Robertson has a special feeling for this work and conducted it with eloquence and passionate conviction. Under his masterful direction, the score emerged as a highly dramatic, coherent musical statement rather than a series of disconnected episodes. He drew strong, full voiced singing from the Miami Master Chorale (expertly prepared by John Augenblick) and a highly expressive performance from the orchestra. Soprano Stephanie Dawn Johnson opened and closed the score with a cry of "pace" (peace). She revealed a voice of purity and distinctive vocal character. Baritone Woodrow Bynum sang his numerous solos with excellent diction, strong articulation, and well focused tone. His beautiful vocalism and attention to the text were especially impressive in the "Dirge for Two Veterans" section.

Pianist Kemal Gekic, an FIU faculty member, has distinguished himself locally in virtuoso recitals and splendid chamber music performances. There was much to admire in his performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor," Opus 18. His technique was as impressive as ever. His dynamic range and sense of light and shade resulted in many striking pianistic effects. His tonal coloring in the second movement Adagio sostenuto produced some beautiful musical contrasts. The concerto's opening chords were brilliantly dispatched. His performance, however, was too cool. Every musical detail was too carefully thought out and controlled. There was not enough musical heat and romantic intensity in his performance. Gekic is a very cerebral artist. His superb command of the instrument and carefully calculated musical approach pays dividends in Beethoven, Mozart, and Schumann. His sense of musical order brings coherence to the sprawling opuses of Liszt and Scriabin. For all his pianistic brilliance, Gekic's Rachmaninoff was too dispassionate and uninvolved. Robertson's conducting of the concerto was coolly polished, but did not penetrate the music's surface. At times the coordination between soloist and orchestra was uneasy. The solo clarinet and flute suffered from poor intonation.

The program opened with "Seascape" by Frederick Kaufman. Kaufman writes imaginatively for percussion. His combinations of celeste, xylophone, triangle, and timpani produced effects that were both eerie and mesmerizing. Much of this mid 1980's score tends to have an academic sound and lacks interesting musical material. Robertson and the orchestra gave the music their best efforts.

Stewart Robertson is at his musical best in opera and large scale vocal works. Vaughan Williams's noble "Dona Nobis Pacem" made his debut with the FIU Festival a memorable occasion.

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