March 16, 2006

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CLASSICAL REVIEWS
Reviews by Jeff Rapsis jrapsis@hippopress.com and Irene Lambombarde news@hippopress.com

Mozart to the max
Lopez, GSSO, team up for concerto performance
Review: It's worth waiting for all season: that special performance where everything just falls into place. The music is powerful, the approach is just right, and everyone involved stays in the zone from start to finish—conductor, musicians, soloist, and audience.

That's what happened last Saturday night at Concord Auditorium, when the Granite State Symphony Orchestra came up with a spectacular rendition of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor with George Lopez as soloist.

Under the direction of Robert C. Babb, the GSSO ensemble plumbed the depths of one of Mozart's most beguiling scores with throughness, grace, and a wonderful sense of proportion. With Babb leading the way, they didn't miss a trick.

At the keyboard, Lopez delivered a polished performance that was paradoxically delicate and extroverted. Grounding his playing in Mozart's classical style—no Rachmaninoff-style purple moments here—allowed the concerto to glow in its own original power.

Throughout the performance, Lopez and Babb let the music speak for itself. And it did, loud and clear, especially in the middle slow movement, which brimmed over with emotions, all heightened by the joy of good music well made.

As the movement progressed, Lopez and the musicians sensed they had something special going; this seemed to bolster the confidence level and led to a terrifically effective climax, in the passage where the soloist crosses hands and the music slides down through several keys.

As an encore, Lopez played a neat little Allemande from Bach's French Suite.

Filling out the program was a performance of Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony No. 3 that found a lot of compelling emotion in the composer's typically neat-as-a-pin score. In fact, Babb and the musicians discovered more life in this work than most big-city orchestras often do.

The only obvious flaws were occasional out-of-balance moments, perhaps due to the concentrated energy that Babb brought to the entire the 40-minute work. Several climaxes, most notably at the end of the first movement and in the slow third movement, were marred by brass playing that overpowered the ensemble. Ouch!

But still, Mendelssohn's music can withstand vigorous playing, and it's refreshing to hear it played with gusto and guts. Too often, the polished nature and "elfin" character of much of his writing leads to an overly delicate approach, which I think robs the music of much of its power.

Holding back wasn't a problem at last Saturday night's Granite State Symphony performance, which was intense from start to finish, and all the better for it. Big moments were played with a take-no-prisoners approach; the way the strings tore into their parts in the fourth movement was impressive and effective.

But neither was the playing sloppy. Large stretches of the score came off with effortless grace. Despite the energy, details weren't sacrificed one bit.

On the whole, I'd much rather hear this work played with raw passion than soulless precision. At Saturday night's concert, Babb and the GSSO musicians struck a fine balance between the two extremes. And the result was one of the most engaging performances of Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony that I've ever heard.
— Jeff Rapsis


A grand night for singing, indeed
Opera NH stages musical songfest in Derry theater
Review: Even before the show began, there was something magical in the air at last Saturday’s Opera New Hampshire performance of “A Grand Night for Singing.” The stage of Pinkerton Academy's Stockbridge Theatre had a simple yet elegant set – some platforms and railings, evoking a boardwalk or promenade, several street lamps, and a suspended archway of lights at the very front, with the orchestra barely visible behind the set. Once the singers took the stage, the magic truly began.

“A Grand Night for Singing” is a revue of favorite songs from the Broadway musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, conceived by Tony Award winning director Walter Bobbie. Although taken from several plays such as Cinderella, The Sound of Music, Carousel, Oklahoma! and The King and I, the selections flow seamlessly and bring one on a journey through the ups and downs of life and love.

Under the direction of Michael Capasso, the show featured five singers from the National Lyric Opera and a small orchestra consisting of harp, piano, bass, cello, woodwinds and drums. The orchestration complimented the vocals, never overshadowing them. The vocalists displayed great personality, dramatic ability, and versatility as they sang in every possible combination from solos and duets to ensemble pieces.

Although there is no dialogue, the ways in which the songs connect are often humorous. When one couple leaves the stage for their ride in the “Surrey With a Fringe on the Top,” the remaining two women break into the “Stepsisters’ Lament” from Cinderella (you know, when Prince Charming asks Cinderella to dance, and the stepsisters cattily question “Why would a fellow want a girl like her, a girl who’s merely lovely?”). There were also a few surprising choices, like having a tenor sing “Maria” from The Sound of Music. Having the frustrations about how to “solve a problem like Maria” being voiced by one man rather than a group of nuns gives the piece an amusingly different interpretation from the original.

The highlight of the show was the lively “Honey Bun” from South Pacific. No sailors with dancing tattoos here, but the baritone set the playful mood perfectly, before being joined by the rest of the cast in a boogie-woogie scat version that had everyone singing and dancing like a trombone, trumpet, bass, etc. – almost like a Mardi Gras band.

Most of the songs were familiar love songs, but I was surprised how many were new to me. I’ve never seen Pipe Dream or Me and Juliet, so rather than simply going on a journey down memory lane, several of the songs stood out exactly because they were not familiar. Something old, something new, twinkling stars in the backdrop, and a show that leaves you humming all the way home – magic indeed.
— Irene Lambombarde


Philharmonic children's concert a treat
'Babar the Elephant' story proves engaging for all ages
Review: An element of child-like wonder comes with all music, which perhaps explains why the New Hampshire Philharmonic's annual children's concert was such a delight no matter what the date on your driver's license happens to be.

The performance, given last Sunday, March 12 at Concord's Capitol Center for the Arts, was a fun blend of good symphonic music and old-fashioned story-telling, courtesy guest narrator Laura Knoy of New Hampshire Public Radio.

The music was followed by a post-concert hands-on "petting zoo," which let kids see the instruments up close and personal. For youg people who wondered what "I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Weiner" played on a French horn sounded like, this was their chance.

The concert's featured work, Francis Poulenc's The Story of Babar, depicted the manifold adventures of a young elephant in musical terms. Poulenc's tart score was played to a very high standard; a bonus was hearing narrator Knoy employ her surprisingly colorful "old lady" voice.

Led by Anthony Princiotti, the Philharmonic musicians clearly had a ball bringing to life the varied cues, which include a musical depiction of a pachyderm attending a tea party. At one point, the score calls for an old-fashioned car horn a la Gershwin's An American in Paris.

Babar is a classic children's story in the "Bambi" mode, in the sense that it doesn't pull punches in the tragedy department. Not only is the baby elephant's mother killed by a hunter early on, but later the King of the Elephants dies from eating a poisoned mushroom.

As such, the story might be a bit much for very young or especially sensitive kids. But overall it's family-friendly light entertainment and, yes, the tale comes with a happy ending.

The concert was remarkable for the professional-caliber musicianship throughout. The orchestra sounded tight, well-drilled, and confident at all times. Even with an audience of mostly young kids, Princiotti and the Philharmonic musicians gave their all to each piece. The many solos in the Babar score, featuring melodies that range from ponderous to comic, were all played with aplomb.

An impeccably balanced "March of the Toreadors" from Bizet's Carmen made for an attention-getting opener, while an arrangement of "March of the Toys" from Victor Herbert's tuneful operetta Babes in Toyland made for an effective contrast with its moody quieter passages.

The program will be repeated on Sunday, March 19 at Keene's Colonial Theatre. If your kids have the least bit of interest in music, it's worth it to haul the family out there. The performance lasts less than an hour — a reasonable length for a children's concert — and there's nary a dull stretch.

For more info on attending, visit nhphil.org.
— JR


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