Richardson — The Richardson Symphony Orchestra, which opened its 58th season last weekend at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts, gives its musicians a place to play in a fine orchestra. It also gives up-and-coming musicians the opportunity to play a concerto with orchestra — a critical part of an artist’s development. The RSO is also deeply involved with musical education and funds many outreach programs. Further, the Ann & Charles Eisemann International Young Artists Competition attracts talented young performances from around the world.
The orchestra also has a terrific conductor in Maestro Clay Couturiaux. Eighteen years ago, he was appointed Assistant Director of Orchestral Studies at the University of North Texas. The list of orchestras where he has already appeared as guest conductor is impressive and continues to grow, both domestically and internationally.
With this background in mind, I finally saw the RSO for their season-opening concert.
The program was a potpourri of orchestral standards. They opened with Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to Der Freischütz, which was followed with a whizbang performance of Mendelssohn’s ever-popular Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 with a very impressive young violinist, Jinjoo Cho doing the honors. The second half opened incongruously with Debussy’s gossamer Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, but the concert ended with one of the great orchestral showpieces, Stravinsky’s 1919 version of the suite from his ballet, The Firebird. This being the season opener, they opened with the National Anthem.
Weber’s overture has dropped in popularity these days but still retains all of the glories that made it a concert staple in the first place. It has the added benefit of giving most of the solo players a chance to shine. Other than a few of the inevitable horn flubs, the orchestral soloists acquitted themselves nicely. One especially exposed run for the first violins was excellently tossed of with some degree of flair.
The Mendelssohn concerto received an energetic reading by Cho. Overall, there was much that was admirable. She brought a unique interpretation to the concerto. Her use of rubato was strikingly beautiful while not being excessive or descending into sentimentality. Both her entrance and exit to the famous first-movement cadenza was so gently approached that it didn’t seem like something separate from the body of the concerto. Best yet, phrases that reappeared were treated slightly different each time, keeping them fresh. The second movement was superb.
On the downside, she tended to rush the virtuosic passages and Couturiaux was frequently left trying to catch up. She also made more of them than the ever-elegant Mendelssohn intended. But this is a common misunderstanding, even among top-level violinists. This is not a virtuoso showpiece, although it contains many such passages, such as concerti by Paganini. Mendelssohn is never showy. Although he writes passages that require technical mastery, he never added them for effect. A violinist should never break bow hairs while playing Mendelssohn.
The rarified atmosphere of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was an intruder to the more robust program — and felt like it. The solo flute did a fine job as did the other principal wind. So did the harpist, although she didn’t get much assistance from Couturiaux, which was odd because he delivered a very controlled reading. Couturiaux felt it necessary to even subdivide most of the way through. He even conducted an empty measure. This piece works best when it is conducted the least. Its natural flow is only crammed into bar lines for notational purposes.
On the other hand, Couturiaux did a fine job with Firebird. It was wonderfully paced, and all of the tempi were properly related. Although he was tempted to reach top dynamic levels a few times along the way, he saved the loudest dynamics for the very end bringing the concert to an exciting close.