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The Phoenix Symphony at its best

Symphony Hall
04/11/2013 -  & April 13, 2013
Claude Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 21

David Shifrin (basset clarinet)
The Phoenix Symphony, Andrew Constantine (Conductor)

A. Constantine (Courtesy of PSO)

The program opens with superbly tedious symphonic poem Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Thank you, Mr. Constantine for attempting to make this piece come alive. Without this “first-responder” approach, one could have easily imagined the faun yawning and stretching (as this writer was) under the searing Arizonan sun, goat feet tapping.

There could not have been a better choice than Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto to wake us up, especially as played by star clarinetist David Shifrin with his infectious smile and endearing facial expressions. Shifrin plays on a conjectural basset clarinet (in fact an extended A-clarinet capable of a lower register) - for which Mozart composed this concerto. The instrument, in such masterly hands, pays due respect to the plush and mellow sonorities, as well as the frills and flourishes of this piece. Shifrin’s tone is smooth and velvety, rather than dazzling, with no muddled low notes and no slurring of the high register. Conservative? Certainly, but highly appropriate in the Mozart setting, deeply expressed, and always with peerless taste. And one can hear his clarinet as he uses his tongue on the reed for clear staccato phrasing which adds distinctive clarity to the music. From the podium, Andrew Constantine conducts a spirited performance, but he and the orchestra yield center stage to the soloist. In Mozart’s own words, his Clarinet Concerto was played “with unassuming elegance, clarity, and simplicity.”

D. Shifrin (Courtesy of PSO)

After intermission we are treated with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 played without cuts. Under the skillful baton of British guest conductor Andrew Constantine, PSO’s delivery is successful. Constantine is aware that this ultra-romantic work needs to be handled carefully so it does not become too sentimental. With a choice of tempo that is middle of the road (the symphony clocked at 60mn), the conducting is passionate but never indulges in over-the-top emotionalism. The soaring musical lines are neither rushed, nor sluggish. In all four movements - but maybe more so in the first one - the orchestra weaves a tapestry of sounds where every thread is clearly visible. The soloists in the foreground do not overshadow the playing of other sections. The most striking aspects of the second movement in yesterday’s performance are the aggressiveness of the basses and the false expectation they produce, being spirited away in a deftly executed and understated ending mezzo-piano. The Adagio is probably the best moment of the evening. Principal clarinetist Alexander Laing delivers a well-crafted solo, with notes tenderly suspended in the air. The strings offer a warm sound, maybe just a wee bit too syrupy; minutiae, really... The violins – and the basses, too – play so lightly that you almost think the bows are not even touching the strings. Not all music is truly as opulent as this, but again, the proper pacing, controlled dynamics, along with focused musicians, make this music float with a hushed and ethereal quality. The concluding Allegro Vivace is all dash and verve and played in stylistic continuity with the other movements, retaining a certain ineluctable pulse that avoids becoming bombastic.

By all accounts, this symphony flew unforced, genuine, and with the most unadorned simplicity. Likewise, it was refreshing to see that no ego came between the conductor and the music. Constantine, rather than standing in the way of the score and trying to make things happen, simply let the music generate from within.

In last night’s program, all sections of PSO were truly commendable and the audience responded with great enthusiasm to a distinguished performance, probably one of the best in the past ten years.

Christian Dalzon



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