By Lawrence Budmen

What a difference a conductor makes. When the Jerusalem Symphony last visited South Florida three years ago, the ensemble was tentative and uneven. While the orchestra boasted excellent strings, the winds were unreliable and the brass seriously deficient. 

On Wednesday, the Concert Association again presented the Jerusalem ensemble. From the moment conductor Leon Botstein took the stage at the Jackie Gleason Theater, the group sounded like a different orchestra. While not a virtuoso instrument like the Israel Philharmonic, the Jerusalem Symphony is an excellent ensemble. The wind playing is now distinguished; the brass solid.

Botstein is a polymath – historian, president of Bard College, musicologist, conductor. He opened an audacious program of 20th century music with the Suite from Paul Hindemith’s 1938 ballet Noblissima Visione. This neo-Baroque score is imbued with Hindemith’s trademark craggy monumentality and brilliant orchestral scoring. An evocative oboe solo was played with sterling tone and strong articulation by Demetrrios Karamintzas. The orchestra’s strings and brass glistened in the final stern Passacaglia. 

Aaron Copland’s Statements is an uncommonly dark work for this composer. In this mid-1930’s score, Copland experiments with atonality but stamps it with his distinctive creative voice. Statements is a boldly austere piece which stills sounds remarkably modern. Noam Buchmann played the sweetly resonant flute solo in the second movement. Botstein brought great conviction and eloquence to the final Prophetic section. 

In Shostakovich’s familiar Symphony No.5 in D Minor, Botstein emphasized the work’s lyricism rather the score’s sinewy satirical qualities. He brought great clarity to the building blocks of sound that form the musical stream from which this work flows. Concertmaster Daniel Kossov phrased his solo with sweetness and elegance not usually heard in this music. The painful Largo - the score’s heart - was rendered with strongly felt expressivity by the ensemble’s lustrous strings. The finale was stirring without being exaggerated.

As encores Botstein offered a bracingly idiomatic performance of the Hoedown from Copland’s ballet Rodeo (with the violins playing standing up) and Shostakovich’s witty Tea for Two Foxtrot (after Vincent Youmans), a lighthearted conclusion to a sober but rewarding program. 

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