Impressions of Italy

LAWRENCE BUDMEN is impressed by Alasdair Neale and the
New World Symphony

The sun drenched landscape, glowing waters, and artistic beauty of Italy have long been an inspiration to creative artists. Many visiting composers have recorded their impressions in music. The multicolored palette of a full symphony orchestra has been the perfect instrument to give voice to musical evocations of this Mediterranean land. On 28 September 2003 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach, the New World Symphony presented a concert of music about Italy by two visitors and a native son.

While Italian composers had long dominated the operatic and vocal field, Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) was a symphonic pioneer. Along with Giuseppe Martucci and Giovanni Sgambati, Respighi believed that orchestral and chamber music needed to speak with a distinctly Italian voice. Respighi visited Russia and studied with Rimsky-Korsakov. He was deeply influenced by that composer's colorful musical visions of Asia and the Orient in such works as Scheherazade, Antar, and Le Coq d'Or. The lush impressionism of Debussy and Ravel also found expression in Respighi's panorama of orchestral sonorities. His two most famous works -- The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome -- were both composed during the era of the First World War. Here is music filled with sumptuous instrumental textures, brilliant orchestral effects, and melodic richness -- extravagant portraits in sound of Rome's architectural wonders.

The New World Symphony's principal guest conductor Alasdair Neale is a superb musician. He commands a dynamic response from the musicians and has the ability to make the most familiar score sound fresh and exciting. Neale also can evoke a full range of dynamics from his ensemble -- from the loudest fortissimo to the softest whisper. He has the ability to make every orchestral detail clear and audible -- often shining new light on instrumental textures. Whether conducting scores by Mozart, Brahms, Elgar, Britten, Ginastera, Copland, or Sierra, Neale brings a strong affinity for the composer's idiom and the ability to make the music come alive. While many conductors emphasize the blatant, strident aspects of The Pines of Rome, Neale found the poetry and instrumental beauty. The opening 'Pines of the Villa Borghese' had dance-like vigor and sparkle. The hushed beauty of 'Pines Near a Catacomb' was striking and powerful -- the deep voiced richness of the lower strings was riveting. The gorgeous wind textures of 'Pines of the Janiculum' (with the birdsong of the nightingale) were played with bright, shining tones. The plaintive sound of the English horn solo was truly beautiful. The concluding 'Pines of the Appian Way' was stirring. With antiphonal brass stationed in the Lincoln Theater balcony, the orchestral climax was glorious.

The Fountains of Rome was no less colorful. Under Neale's sensitive baton, the lush beauty of Respighi's instrumental writing was set forth with subtlety and expressive nuance. The sweet tones of the flutes in the 'Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn' seemed to come from an impressionistic sound gauze. The brilliant sound of the horns and trumpets in the 'Triton Fountain At Morn' riveted attention. The shimmering beauty of the 'Villa Medici Fountain At Sunset' was unforgettable. At its conclusion, gossamer strings seemed to soar into infinity with glorious harp glissandos softly fading in the night breeze -- a beautiful sound portrait indeed. The dazzling playing of harpist Yumiko Endo Schlaffer was a standout. The often exquisite orchestral playing was stunning. Conductor and orchestra gave truly great performances of Respighi's music!

Mendelssohn's Symphony No 4 in A Op 90 (Italian) received a lively, elegant performance. From the first notes of the Allegro vivace, Neale drew vigorous, incisive playing from the New World strings. The winds played with lightness and élan. The warm, lush sound of the strings in the Andante con moto was gorgeous. Neale made the movement a glorious lyrical outpouring rather than the funeral dirge less sensitive interpreters bring to the music. The third movement Con moto moderato had songlike elegance. The contribution of the orchestra's horn section was especially distinguished. Neale took the final Saltarello: Presto at a daringly fast tempo. The result was invigorating. The bustling Italian dance rhythm was delightful. Transparency of orchestral detail was a joy to hear. The musicians played Mendelssohn's masterwork with sparkle and élan.

A visit to Italy in 1903 prompted Sir Edward Elgar to write his Overture In the South Op 50. From the dynamic opening to the long limbed melodies of the middle section, this score is quintessential Elgar. Brilliant orchestral playing and dynamic rhythmic articulation were the hallmarks of a stunning performance. Neale caught the sentiment of the work's central section. A rich, glowing viola solo was memorable. All the lyricism and rousing high spirits of the music were set forth in high style -- irresistible Elgar!

Four impressions of Italy -- each set forth with strong musicality and attention to stylistic details. Although many of the New World Symphony's players are new this season, the ensemble playing was outstanding. The wonderfully detailed, patrician conducting of Alasdair Neale made for an evening of superb music making.

Copyright © 1 November 2003 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA

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