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Runaway orchestra gets the better of its conductor at SinfoNova concert


Conducted by Aram Gharabekian.

Soomi Lee, Anthony Paratore and

Joseph Paratore, Piano soloists.

Program of works by Ernest Bloch and Mozart.

Event in The Tech Performing Arts Series.

Jordan Hall, May 12.


I T WAS NOT ARAM GHARABEKIAN'S happiest evening. One-third of the professional freelancers who normally make up SinfoNova's orchestral ensemble had decided they would rather play for the Boston Pops or the Boston Ballet on the night of SinfoNova's last 1988/89 season concert. The musicians Gharabekian recruited to replace them were of a lower standard.

Then, solo pianist Soomi Lee -- due to open the concert in a performance of Ernest Bloch's Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra with Piano Obligato -- was nowhere to be seen at 8 pm. Because of a misunderstanding, she was under the impression that she was to close the concert, not open it. A desperate Gharabekian finally found her at 8:20, and she was changed and on stage two minutes later.

Perhaps all of this proved to be too much for Gharabekian's nerves, for the craziest event of the evening occurred during the finale of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, when tempi accelerated to a fiendish rate and the orchestra went out of control.

Under the circumstances, it was perhaps surprising that the Bloch work was the most successful. The strings sounded strong and focused, and the adrenalin-driven Soomi Lee's piano playing was lively and responsive. The second movement, Dirge -- Andante moderato was done wonderfully -- with precision of playing, but also a depth which revealed the humanity in the music. In the third movement there was a beautiful solo passage by the violas; they sounded majestic, like a choir.

There were good aspects to the performance of Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in E-flat, K. 365. The brothers Anthony and Joseph Paratore sound like siblings, playing together with an almost uncanny precision. Their reading was certainly enjoyable, and in many passages they showed considerable virtuosity.

But despite some bright and characterful playing, they appeared to be connected by a mechanical rather than a spiritual link for much of the time, and their performance lacked in variety or creativity. They weren't helped by the clunky-sounding Falcone pianos they had to play on; the tone quality was bright and forward, and less malleable than that of a good Steinway.

The orchestral opening to the concerto was warm and quite Mozartean, although the ensemble -- like the soloists -- weaved a mostly homogeneous fabric, which would have benefited from more individuality in expression. The strings became somewhat abrupt towards the end of the concerto.

There's no doubt that SinfoNova's high-speed performance of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony was exciting; but it was decidedly unmusical. The orchestra pressed ahead at a relentless rate, coming across both over-aggressively and self-consciously. There was some nicer playing of the slower passages in the Andante, especially from the woodwinds; but the Menuetto was unsettled, and the concluding Molto allegro -- driven by the devil, with Gharabekian merely standing on the sidelines -- may have been breathtaking, but was also muddled and harsh.

Gharabekian has shown in the past that he is one of the most innovative and imaginative conductors in town. Past SinfoNova performances of Mozart have been ravishing, and Gharabekian has given compelling accounts of many of the contemporary scores he has introduced to Boston audiences. Better advance planning is needed for next season to ensure that the best available musicians can perform in every concert, and to remove the panic atmosphere which marred this one.