By Lawrence Budmen

After creating some of the most divine piano music ever to flow from a composer's pen, Robert Schumann (1810-1856) turned to writing symphonic works in 1841. In that year the young composer crafted his "Spring" Symphony (No.1 in B-flat Major) and the first version of the D Minor Symphony (which would become Symphony No.4). A cultural provocateur, Schumann (in his critical writings) urged composers to follow the model of Beethoven in his Ninth ("Choral") Symphony and take the genre into a new artistic universe. To that end he suggested the standard four movement classical form was creatively inhibiting. Schumann believed a symphony could have fewer or more movements - depending on the creative impulse that underlined the work. His "Overture, Scherzo, and Finale," Opus 52 (from that glorious symphonic year of 1841) was the composer's attempt at a more compact symphonic statement. A warmly idiomatic performance of this lovely work was the highpoint of the South Florida debut of the Deutsche Philharmonie on February 14 at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach - presented by the Concert Association of Florida. 

The ensemble's conductor Theodore Kuchar is an experienced orchestra builder. A former assistant to Christoph von Dohnanyi at the Cleveland Orchestra, Kuchar was the guiding light of the National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine for over a decade. With that ensemble, he made 40 recordings and led the Kiev based orchestra on several foreign tours. In addition to several German orchestral affiliations, Kuchar is presently music director of orchestras in Boulder, Colorado and Fresno, California. A maestro with a wide repertoire, Kuchar clearly has a special affinity for music of the Romantic era. The Schumann "Overture, Scherzo, and Finale" can often sound like a minor symphonic essay in less inspired performances. Kuchar expressively molded the engaging thematic threads of the opening section. The Scherzo had that perfectly gauged, slightly hesitant tempo that makes the music so utterly engaging. The Finale was a lively, joyous orchestral affirmation. The concluding chorale was rousingly celebratory. Kuchar drew vigorous, characterful playing from the Deutsche Philharmonie musicians. 

The orchestra - based in Herford in Westphalia - is a less than first rate regional ensemble. Its rich toned, resonant string section is the orchestra's artistic pillar. Their invigorating, precise playing in the Schumann work was in the best Central European orchestral tradition. The wind players are more variable; the brass unpredictable. In the "Symphony No.2 in D Major," Opus 73 by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Kuchar revealed his ability to draw impassioned music making from less than stellar forces. He clearly understands the radiantly soaring lyricism of this 1877 score - Brahms's "pastoral" symphony. Kuchar emphasized the subtle shades of light and dark that permeates the opening Allegro non troppo. The warmly expressive lower string playing (by cellos and violas) was compromised by wayward horn intonation and weak flute solos. Kuchar (aided by reverberant strings and piquant winds) captured the elongated lyrical line of the Adagio non troppo. The lovely oboe solo of the third movement Allegretto grazioso (Quasi andantino) was beautifully shaped by the conductor. He drew incisive string playing in the Presto ma non assai and astutely judged Brahms's sudden changes of tempo and mood. Kuchar attacked the final Allegro con spirito with vigor but often had to contend with chaotic ensemble playing. The strings' beautifully shaped rendering of the lovely second theme was stirring. The final trumpet fanfare had an appropriate sense of triumph. A highly uneven performance! 

The Italian pianist Fabio Bidini last appeared in Miami nearly a decade ago. At that time his elegant performance of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto (with the Florida Philharmonic) was sabotaged by the loud, coarse conducting of Michael Stern. This gifted keyboard artist was a winner of the prestigious Busoni Competition and studied with the great Italian pianist Maria Tipo (who also taught Pietro De Maria and Nelson Goerner - two bright lights of the Miami International Piano Festival 2004). It was a pleasure to encounter Bidini's elegantly sculpted playing again in Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat Major," Opus 73. (Despite its numbering, this melodically inspired, work is Beethoven's first keyboard concerto.) The exquisite lightness of Bidini's pianistic touch enlivened the Mozartean charm of the opening Allegro con brio. His delicately textured, beautifully shaped playing turned the Adagio into a moment of pure sublimity. Bidini clearly understood Beethoven's fragile romantism. His invigorating interpretation of the final Rondo was marked by virtuosic brilliance, scintillating keyboard coloration, and an elegant sense of musical line. Unfortunately Kuchar's slow tempos tended to inhibit Bidini's often exciting performance. Conductor and soloist were not always together; some of the orchestral playing was tentative. (Perhaps Miami will yet hear this wonderful pianist collaborate with a more supportive conductor.)

Despite a less than stellar orchestra this Valentine's Day concert offered an engaging menu of musical romantism. Theodore Kuchar's strongly idiomatic conducting of Schumann and the patrician art of Fabio Bidini were the essence of music making from the heart! 

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