CELLIST PLAYS WITH ELEGANCE AT PHILHARMONIC CONCERT
By Lawrence Budmen
Sir Edward Elgar is best known for his "Pomp and Circumstance Marches," the first of which is the anthem that has accompanied many generations of high school and college students down the aisle to accept their diploma. The popularity of these ceremonial pieces has tended to obscure Elgar's true stature as a composer. His two symphonies, violin concerto, "Enigma Variations," and, particularly, the "Cello Concerto in E Minor," Opus 85 are major contributions to the orchestral repertoire. That concerto - the composer's final masterwork- was the centerpiece of the concert by the Florida Philharmonic on October 23 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach.
Cello virtuosos from Pablo Casals to Janos Starker, Lynn Harrell, and Yo Yo Ma have embraced this music. This concerto has long been associated with the late British cellist Jacqueline du Pre, whose deeply felt performances set a new standard for this score. (Recently the music was used prominently in the film "Hilary and Jackie," a biopic about du Pre's tragically short life.) This is music of great beauty and poignancy. The cello writing requires towering virtuosity. The soloist on this occasion was the Canadian cellist Amanda Forsyth. Ms. Forsyth exhibited a rich, darkly beautiful tone. She shaped and phrased the score with elegance and grace. The virtuoso finger work was deftly handled. She is clearly a musician of depth and refinement. Yet something was lacking in her performance of this glorious work. Ms. Forsyth failed to connect with the music's romantic aura or with the audience. The opening Adagio-Moderato lacked the intensity and passion that the music exudes. The scherzo was strangely cool and neutral despite considerable bravura playing. The Adagio - a raptly beautiful autumnal song - found Ms. Forsyth closer to the work's long spun lyricism. She played this pivotal movement with an intensity and inner glow that were previously absent. The concluding Allegro had many lovely turns of musical phrase. Ms. Forsyth is a gifted and wonderfully musical artist. In more austerely classical repertoire (Haydn, Boccherini, Vivaldi) she should be highly impressive.
The British conductor Rumon Gamba met Elgar's romanticism on its own terms. He evoked a big, rounded tone from the strings and lovely, subtle playing from the woodwinds. The conductor captured the rhapsodic, wistful tone of Elgar's music. The sheer beauty of the composer's evocative orchestral writing was fully displayed.
Gamba is a rising star on the English music scene. He is the associate conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester and the newly appointed music director of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. This series of concerts marked his American debut. He tends to display a hyperactive podium manner, but he obtained sharp, incisive playing from the Philharmonic. The string playing, in particular, had strength and precision. The orchestra sounded wonderful in the crisp acoustics of the Lincoln Theater, a new venue for this ensemble. Gamba adeptly judged the very live acoustical ambience and kept the full orchestral sound from becoming blatant or distorted.
Brahms's "Academic Festival Overture," Opus 80, a lively pastiche of student songs, was given a rousing, joyous performance. Gamba adroitly pointed up numerous felicitous orchestral details. Robert Schumann's "Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major" ("Spring"), Opus 38 is quintessential l9th century German romanticism in full flower. Gamba's performance was lively and well shaped. The opening trumpet call had real character and was played with clarion brilliance. There were times when this performance was a little too jaunty. The opening movement was too fast and breathless. The Larghetto needed more lyricism and romantic glow. The two trios of the Scherzo were strongly characterized and rhythmically vivacious. The finale was filled with joy but Gamba chose a tempo that was so fast that precise orchestral articulation was impossible. Principal flutist Christine Nield's solos were sweet toned and elegantly phrased.
While there is more depth in this symphony than was reflected in this performance, Rumon Gamba proved to be a conductor who elicits splendid orchestral playing and interesting musical interpretations. Gamba needs to remember that speed should not be confused with excitement. He needs to find the more serene side of music making.