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Invigorating a Warhorse

Symphony Hall
02/02/2012 -  & February 3, 4, 2012
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 3 in C Major, op. 52
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, op. 35

Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, Michael Christie (Conductor)

(Courtesy of Phoenix Symphony)

Just a few days ago, Conductor Michael Christie was appointed Music Director of Minnesota Opera. He will step down from his current position at the helm of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra in 2013, after a six-year tenure.

The program opens with Sibelius’ Third Symphony, a piece that Christie knows well and for which he received a special prize at the first international Sibelius Conductors’ Competition in 1995.

Christie’s approach to the Allegro moderato is vivid and crisp, with trenchant lower strings, while cellos and basses offer a buoyant and springy, almost foot-tapping rhythm in their opening tune, followed by the lush sound of the woodwinds. Christie is adequately responsive to the magic of the middle section leading to a coda played with nobility. The second, slow movement appropriately blends gracefulness and melancholy, with remarkable work by the flutes and clarinets. The middle section is truly mysterious and Christie is attentive to not overlook the brief and meltingly beautiful accompaniment by the violas. As expected, the quasi “schizophrenic” third movement is menacing and disturbing, with snatches of themes tossed in a whirlwind. Not an easy part to play, but Christie, who adroitly handles the chaos, may have considered a more electrifying pace. Despite a few odd tempo choices and minor instrumental balance issues, the Phoenix Symphony coins a well-crafted and coherent reading.

For many classical music lovers, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade was one of their first flings. This all-time favorite has passed through the hands of every single conductor, prestigious or not. Recommended recordings of the piece, according to the venerable Penguin Guide to Classical CDs, exceed twenty, let alone the many that have fallen into oblivion.
Phoenix Symphony Orchestra brings out all the qualities of this score: its opulence, poetry, colors, and vividness. In this technically demanding work, Christie’s choice of a dramatic use in changes of tempo and dynamics is not an easy one and calls for excellent musicians. While the fast sections are played at breakneck speed, the adagios are played at a languorous pace. Despite the sudden and difficult transitions from pp to fff and back, the orchestra does not lose grip on the music and details are not lost (e.g. the fast pizzicato series of runs by the piccolos in the third movement).
From the rasping, almost violent brass of the first movement, to the relaxed beauty of the strings in The Young Prince and the Young Princess, to the frantic bustle of The Festival in Bagdad, and on to the mighty crash of The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock we are taken on an invigorating journey that exudes assurance and commitment. But it is in the quiet ending, especially in the long, sustained notes of the violin’s highest register, that this orchestra makes the most eloquent impression. Concertmaster Steven Moeckel does an admirable job all along the piece. He is at his best in the second movement solo where he gives his theme a tuneful depth, adding just a smidgen of vibrato to suggest the feel and tenderness of a human voice. Harpist Paula Provo, also of note, adequately gives her part a dulcet sense of wonderment. And kudos to “Jasper”, violinist Diane Sullivan’s seeing eye golden retriever, who, as always, did a remarkable job pretending he was asleep.

This is a fine orchestra, led by a gifted, young musical director. While it does not play in the same league as major US orchestras, it does a very respectable work and deserves more attention that it actually receives.

Christian Dalzon



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