Saturday's Annapolis Symphony concert, the orchestra's +V inaugural offering of the 1992-1993 season, was a pleasant affair highlighted by an excellent visiting soloist, some admirably energetic playing by the orchestra, and a large, appreciative audience.
William Ver Meulen, the gifted principal French horn of the Houston Symphony, was soloist in concertos by Mozart and Richard Strauss. His performance left no doubt as to why he is acknowledged as one of America's finest horn players.
Technically, there is nothing he can't do on the French horn. His accuracy is extraordinary. He managed two demanding
concertos played back to back on this supremely treacherous instrument without so much as a single minor fluff.
His tone is lush and in tasteful perpetual motion to provide the many subtle coloristic effects called for by the music. Movements I and II of Mozart's K.417 concerto were lyrical and mellow, while in the Rondo, Ver Meulen summoned forth a brassier tone that confirmed the horn's ancestry as the instrument of the hunt.
His Strauss was impeccable, and a "showtime" encore, his own transcription of Rossini's "Barber of Seville" aria, "Una voce poco fa," allowed him to exhibit unsurpassed pyrotechnics of articulation and range.
The ASO contributed nicely. The opening tutti in the Mozart was truly exceptional, though the players lost a bit of their edge after the soloist entered. More juice might have been provided in the Strauss (those difficult after-beats in Movement I, for example), but the orchestra's contribution was, on balance, admirable. This is not an easy work to integrate, and conductor Gisele Ben-Dor did very well by her soloist.
Music lovers who see Beethoven's Third Symphony as an expression of heroic grandeur and dignity may have been brought up short by Ms. Ben-Dor's pedal-to-the-floor "Eroica."
But while it may have lacked something in nobility, there's no denying its visceral excitement.
Occasionally, Ms. Ben-Dor's crackling pace left violinists sawing away in her wake, but she wanted a bristling "Eroica" and she got one. While I'd have to say that I'd take Beethoven's hyperactive metronome markings less seriously in my ideal version of the score, there was much to enjoy.
The most controversial aspect for me was the second movement, the funeral march, which seemed rather glib and superficial. But Ben-Dor certainly nailed the churning fugue at the movement's core, and the tension she fashioned at the release of the counterpoint was extremely dramatic in its impact. Brava!
Despite some stragglers and a horn section that was woefully out of tune in the third movement Trio, the orchestra certainly gave its all for the cause.
In sum, a thumping "Eroica" short on metaphysics, but lots of fun nonetheless.
In Rossini's overture to "La Scala di Seta", the ASO proved that in order to play the notes stylishly, you must first be able to play them, period. Poor Rossini deserved better in this, his bicentennial year.