Charisma and Eloquence from a Young Conductor and an Oboe Master

United StatesUnited States anon., Bernstein, Barber, Françaix, Strauss, Ravel: Richard Woodhams (oboe), Curtis Symphony Orchestra / Miguel Harth-Bedoya & Carlos Ágreda (conductors), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 5.2.2017. (BJ)

anon. (arr. Otto-Werner Mueller) – The Star-Spangled Banner
Bernstein – Overture to Candide
Barber – Canzonetta, Op.48 (orch. Charles Turner)
FrançaixL’Horloge de flore
StraussDon Juan, Op.20
RavelDaphnis et Chloé Suite No.2

There are school orchestras, and then there are school orchestras.When an ensemble is made up of gifted students from one of the world’s greatest conservatoires, it may be expected to reach a high level of skill and indeed virtuosity, and that is what the orchestra of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute habitually – despite such a group’s inevitably frequent changes of personnel – offers its listeners.

In that regard, this concert was no exception. From first note to last, there was a fetching exuberance about the music-making from all sections of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra. I did feel, however, that the textures Miguel Harth-Bedoya drew from his players, while consistently strong in the delineation of the bass line and amply brilliant at the top, were somewhat lacking in the middle registers. The result, particularly in Don Juan and Daphnis et Chloé, which are already brilliant enough in themselves, sounded unrelievedly loud and rather overwhelmingly brash.

The concert was dedicated to the memory of Otto-Werner Mueller, the institute’s long-serving professor of conducting studies, who died last February. The Star-Spangled Banner thus appropriately opened the proceedings in Mueller’s arrangement. This, beginning without snare-drum call to attention but with a thoughtful trumpet solo, was intended as a less militaristic version of the piece than we usually hear. For most of its length, with gradually burgeoning textures and slowly increasing dynamics, it made excellent listening. But just before the end, at the last word of the phrase “O’er the land of the FREE,” Mueller couldn’t resist topping the dominant with an emphatic tonic a fourth higher, which I thought spoiled the otherwise poetic effect and instead invoked memories of all those self-advertising vocalists who do the same vulgar thing before baseball games.

The biggest musical pleasures of the evening, then, came from the performance of Bernstein’s Candide overture that conducting fellow Carlos Ágreda led, and from the presence as soloist of Curtis’s own oboe teacher Richard Woodhams.

The Bernstein is a delightful piece, and it had exactly the richness of texture that was missing in the rest of the program, along with irresistible rhythmic bounce and melodic fluency. Ágreda looks every inch a conductor. His technique is admirably economical, with the left hand kept out of the way whenever it is not needed for expressive molding of phrases, and displaying also an ample supply of charisma he created the feeling that this could well be a major career in the making.

Richard Woodhams has been the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal oboe for nearly 40 years, and his performances on this occasion betrayed not the slightest decline in the artistic and technical mastery that makes him probably the finest occupant of such a position in the world. The Canzonetta is not one of Samuel Barber’s strongest pieces, and for that matter L’Horloge de flore has relatively little of the characterful wit we usually find in Jean Françaix’s music, but both works received polished and eloquent performances, and Woodhams, punctually supported by Harth-Bedoya, made the most of the interplay of legato writing and crisply articulated staccato notes in the Françaix.

Bernard Jacobson

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