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Rebecca Miller, Conductor
Reviews
Symphony opens with variety

June 19, 2006, 10:16AM
MUSIC REVIEW
Symphony opens with variety

By CHARLES WARD
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

The Houston Symphony likes to use its Miller Outdoor Theatre concerts to try out new conductors and soloists. It is where Pianist Lang Lang first played in Houston.

But the opening weekend of the 2006 series was more like a debutante ball, introducing several symphony musicians to the Hermann Park audiences.

Friday, the orchestra's principal cellist, Brinton Averil Smith, gave his first concerto performance since joining the orchestra at the beginning of the season.

The following evening, Rebecca Miller, the orchestra's American Conducting Fellow, led her first classical concert here. Her soloist was principal trombonist Allen Barnhill, who has not had such a spotlight for a good while.

During the classical season in Jones Hall, Smith offered glimpses of his quiet-spoken, elegant playing. At Miller, he fleshed out that impression in a finely honed performance of Edouard Lalo's Cello Concerto in D Minor.

His legato playing was particularly impressive. Melodies poured from his instrument with singing beauty and liquid consistency. Regardless of tempo or the register of his instrument (high, medium or low), Smith played with great beauty and consistency.

Lalo offered the soloist a chance for considerable variety of character — from almost dreamy melismas to jaunty, quasi-Iberian dances. Here, Smith was less willing to compromise beauty for vigorous dramatic effect.

His conductor was Federico Cortese, a former assistant at the Boston Symphony Orchestra who now leads a youth orchestra and a string orchestra in the Boston area.

He offered tanginess too seldom heard at the Miller Theatre concerts: William Bolcom's MCMXC Tanglewood, an overture commissioned the 50th anniversary at the Boston Symphony's Tanglewood Music Center in 1990.

The piece was brusque and bold in the style of Bolcom's aggressive concert music. Cortese and the orchestra gave a taut, intense account.

Cortese's other works were Rossini's Overture to the opera Semiramide and Beethoven's Symphony No. 2.

The Overture was best in Rossini's cheery but relentless building of enthusiasm. The Beethoven symphony had a boldness more appropriate to the Ninth Symphony. A lighter hand would have made the drama more intense and exciting.

Miller, whose work in Houston is co-sponsored by the American Symphony Orchestra League, brought more satisfying music-making in Rimsky-Korsakov's version of Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and Berlioz's Symphony fantastique.

Her conducting was crisp and orderly. She and the orchestra communciated well; the musicians played with a sit up-and-concentrate spirit not always evident in American orchestras.

The interpretations were straight-forward but Miller seemed to have used her relatively short rehearsal time effectively to make her points and tidy difficult passages.

That was better heard in Berlioz's grand, autobiographical program music. The delicate interplay of the English horn and timpani near the end of the third movement was exquisitely expressive and the March to the Scaffold, the following movement, had almost all the squawking swagger a listener could want.

Barnhill played another Rimsky-Korsakov work, a concerto composed originally for a military band (and played Saturday with an orchestration by Robert Thurston.

The short concerto had many characteristics of an early 19th-century vocal work — sweet lines, leaps and outlines of chords that had Barnhill ranging from his lowest grunt to his highest shining pitch.

His performance was great fun. The only things missing from his bravura performance were the trills and stratospheric high notes sopranos interpolate to nail the impact.

charles.ward@chron.com

Charles Ward, Houston Chronicle
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