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October 17, 2000

Speck-tacular Fireworks Open Mobile Symphony Season

A Review by Pat Pinson

"Beginning a new era" is the phrase used by MSO as it opened the season with new Music Director, Scott Speck, on Saturday, September 30. And indeed, it is a new era -- the Symphony has a permanent home at the spruced-up Saenger, and its first-ever own Music Director. Both looked good on Saturday night to a near-capacity audience.

Puns abound - from "Great Scott" to "Simply Speck-tacular" in the Symphony material, and Speck's credentials are excellent. It is obvious we have not only a fine musician, but a top scholar as well (he had a Fulbright to Germany and is conversant in five languages beyond English), and a cosmopolitan who knows the music scene in the rest of the world. No provincial, here! We are working with someone whose musical circuitry runs from Beijing to Berlin, and whose "conductivity" runs through opera, film, chamber and orchestral music. Not only this, but he is co-author of a couple of the popular books on virtually everything "for Dummies." I checked out the Classical Music one, and it is very thorough and also very funny. But Speck's stage demeanor is very laid back -- he strolls onto the stage and bounces onto the podium, yet when it is time for business; there is no question about who is in command.

The "Russian Fireworks" program opened with an overture which has eclipsed its mother opera "Ruslan and Ludmilla." It was composed by the "father of Russian music" Mikael Glinka, who put music with a particular Russian flavor on the map. The orchestra was at its best point of the evening -- the allegro pace was full of clean runs in the strings, light folk melodies played with excitement and a bubbling of energy throughout the whole ensemble. It was a fine opening to the concert and to the whole season.

The Russian connection switched from composer to performer in the featured soloist for the evening, Philip Quint. Quint, a young Russian who came to the US in the last decade, received a full scholarship to Julliard and obviously deserved it. He performed one of the most popular violin concertos in the concert repertoire - the Mendelssohn E minor. Mendelssohn composed this concerto for his friend and eminent violinist, Ferdinand David in 1844 just 2 years after Glinka's opera. David commented many years later that this work was one of the four greatest violin concertos ever written (Beethoven, Brahms and Bruch were the others) but it was the "dearest of them all, the heart's jewel."

Quint approached this work not as a warhorse to be played with aggressive virtuosity, but with a mixture of delicacy as in chamber music, and with Russian "soul." He used his strong technique to make it shimmer with brilliance, and he made the lyrical themes sing with slight lingerings and delicate pushing the pitch at the top of phrases. The second movement theme is simple and unassuming, and here Quint let it waft in a mezzo piano on the soft texture of orchestral sound. The lucid, unaffected interpretation created a chamber setting -- a quiet repose in the middle of bravura. At times in the last movement, Quint's sheer exuberance and apparent ease of technique often put him just a hair ahead of the orchestra, but even here, the brilliant spiccato passages were light and not overplayed and subtlety of tone was apparent.

The audience roared their approval and Quint gave an encore. Saying he hoped that they were not tired, he lapsed into a set of Variations by Nicolo Paganini. Obviously this work featured every technical feat in the book, and Quint aced them all. Again, there was roaring applause from an appreciative, vocal audience as the lights rose for intermission.

Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony was the entire second half of the program. Acknowledged as the best of his six symphonies, it is a long, complex work full of interwoven themes, fanfares, and expressive folk melodies. This work tests the endurance of the orchestra and its ability to play well in family groups and in frequent short solos. There were some rough edges at times, but they were not major distractions in this veritable sea of sound.

There were also magical moments -- in the first movement, the quiet, sustained string theme is embroidered with colorful strands of woodwinds over a hushed tympani, and many of the solos in the second movement were especially musically played. The third is a perennial favorite -- a pizzicato movement that sounds like a balalaika orchestra from the Russian steppes. The last movement begins with the brass fanfare and the "Fate" theme of the first movement tying the whole work together. Speck took the orchestra through one long crescendo after another keeping the pace and building the excitement again and again up to the final crashing chords.

Again, the vocally appreciative audience gave the orchestra and Speck a strong ovation for a "speck-tacular" evening.


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