Although "Start the New Year with Music" was the title of last weekend's Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra concert, only a sparse crowd of music lovers appeared willing to brave the cold to take the orchestra up on that offer. Those who did come out on that frigid evening heard performances that may be more indicative of the direction that the orchestra is taking than one might think. Whether that direction will pay off for musicians and concert-goers in the long run is a question that will obviously be a topic of discussion as the orchestra's season progresses.
Maestro Dan Allcott chose three works for the evening's short program: the Overture to Oberon by Carl Maria von Weber, Cyrillic Dreams by the contemporary composer Stefan Freund, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major. The Weber work was a rehearsal-week substitution for the previously announced Bajka by Stanislaw Moniuszko.
Freund's work for strings, Cyrillic Dreams, was a pleasant surprise. This remarkable recent work, from 2009, was inspired by a trip to Russia, where the composer says he was inspired by the shape of the domes of Moscow and St. Petersburg, the sound of bells, and dreams haunted by abstractions of the Cyrillic alphabet and the unease that comes from being in an unfamiliar environment. Blurred runs and glissandos set the tone for this unease, opened by a solo cello (Ihsan Kartal), echoed by a solo viola (Jennifer Bloch), and taken up by a solo violin (Karen Kartal). One is unconsciously drawn into this world that is both comforting and strange, full of hazy images and blended realities. The beautifully played work was an indicator, as well, of the obvious precision that Allcott is asking from his string players.
The second half of the program was taken up by Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major, a work that is a favorite for many among Beethoven's nine symphonies and one that also has the uncanny ability to reveal an orchestra's musical infrastructure. In this case, I don't think I have ever heard this orchestra play with more precision. Entrances were crisp, exits were clean and solid, string intonation was accurate, woodwind tone was beautiful, and the feeling of true ensemble playing within sections was noticeable. This precision will be quite a solid basis looking ahead to future performances.
Why, then, did the overall performance of the symphony leave me as cold as the evening's frigid temperatures? In contrast to the technically fine individual instrumental playing, the performance lacked the warmth, emotional color, and life that characterizes Beethoven. Superficially, all was correct, even pleasant. But the heart and soul of the work was flawed by understated dynamic changes and relatively static, emotionless tempos.
This might seem difficult to believe, given Allcott's physical podium performance. His hyperactive conducting style seems to be calling for, even demanding, dramatic dynamic changes and emotional responses. Yet those changes and responses never come—nor can they, as much of the gesticulation appears to be excessive in contrast to what is in the score. While Allcott's physical entreaties may be useful for the orchestra, they seemed to be distracting for some members of the audience. I found myself closing my eyes to eliminate the theatrical contradictions of eye and ear.
Allcott began the evening with the overture to Weber's opera Oberon, an overture that has proven more popular than the opera itself. From the opening horn call (Mitzi Hall) through lovely solo moments for woodwinds and a lilting melody to a happily dramatic finale, the work is the perfect theatrical opener. However, just as in the Beethoven, the orchestra's sections, although individually precise, seemed to be a bit out of balance with each other, resulting in some slightly off moments of tonality. And again, the work lacked the life and driving emotional interest that is achieved through the give and take of tempo.