Romance was the order of the evening Saturday night at the Pantages Theater, as the Tacoma Symphony surged, soared and vibratod their way through a concert led by the third candidate in TSOs musical director search: Kevin Rhodes. Following an uninspiring William Schuman overture and a stark Bruch violin concerto with sixty minutes of emotional Rachmaninoff, Rhodes added a loud, gregarious personality and plenty of European-style kissing to an evening that pulled both big sounds and messy ensemble from the orchestra.
That Rhodes, the third of four in the director search (the last, Scott Speck, comes to town Nov. 17), is a big fan of little-known mid-century American composers isnt a secret. Leading his own pre-concert talk the East Coast-based conductor waxed lyrical about Schuman and his contemporaries, and certainly its good to hear something new in the overture department. Rhodes also conducted with real conviction, making as much architectural sense as possible out of Schumans crazy-New-York-street tonal atmosphere. Yet this couldnt hide the compositions lack of texture, meaningful melody or fluent transitions, and the musicians seemed a little hesitant about it all.
Next up was concertmaster Svend Rønning playing Bruchs Violin Concerto in g minor no hesitation here, but a very odd stylistic decision. Its tempting, when you play a warhorse like this, to invent something quite radical to grab jaded attentions but treating Bruch like Mozart was not the happiest choice. With a clear but thin tone and competent but passionless virtuosity, Rønning played his way through this über-Romantic work as if he were at a Suzuki recital. A bland opening passage gave way to a neat first movement, a brisk second movement with no rubato or portamento that allowed little time to savor the inbuilt pathos, and finally a third movement that was boring even in the breakneck finish. Rønning is a better player than this, and was in complete control of the runs, double-stops and arpeggios; but he played his solo part as if humbly leading his orchestral section. Behind him Rhodes pulled the orchestra into solid tuttis but ignored details of the accompaniment sections (and the realities of the Pantages acoustic), resulting in a sound that was dull rather than lush and scared rather than wistful.
All was forgiven in Rønnings encore, however a witty mélange of themes from London Bridge to the national anthem, given an unaccompanied Bach/Copland treatment in a homage to the Narrows Bridge.
One solid hour of Rachmaninoff is a lot for a reviewer who doesnt care for the composer, so its a tribute to Rhodes that he made the Symphony no. 2 as compelling as it was on Saturday night. From the haunting bass notes of the opening to the blasting finish, Rhodes sculpted a massive soundscape that soared and fell with intricate nuance. Passionate upper strings, smoothly threatening brass and gut-rumbling timpani made up for lackluster cellos and some rather dull wind solos (Mary Jensens flute was a lyrical exception). Highlights were lyrical violin phrasing in the first movement, furious horns in the staccato theme of the second, a plaintive oboe solo for the questioning motif of the third, and nice ensemble work in the violas and bass in the swirling, triumphant fourth. Throughout, Rhodes was obviously in his element, mastering ideal tempi and moving the audience through sheer emotional involvement.
One thing that didnt make it through, however, was attention to detail. Rhodes had excellent big-picture command of the work, but many sections (the fugue in the second movement, the Tchaikovsky-ish minor theme in the fourth) were messy something that this orchestra usually solves in rehearsal.
Rhodes also added his version of European romanticism throughout the show: enthusiastically conducting the audience during the national anthem, kissing every single female front-stand musician (and one audience member at the post-concert Q&A) on both cheeks, speaking with loud and overt charm during the Q&A about his passion for passionate music.
After November 17, the Tacoma Symphony will have to make a hard choice. So far theyve seen a woman conductor with a startling intensity and intelligence, a younger guy with creative multimedia ideas and a rock-star style, and the extrovert romanticism of Rhodes. Theres one more to go. If audiences havent begun thinking about how the winner will define our symphony for the next decade or so, they need to start now.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org