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A reminder of what sets the great ones apart


I became an Annapolis Symphony groupie this past weekend.

Owing to family circumstances, I caught the first half of Saturday evening's Maryland Hall concert, featuring Maurice Ravel's "Concerto for the Left Hand" with the symphony's conductor emeritus at the keyboard. A performance of contemporary American composer David Ott's new "Annapolis Overture" also was on the program.

Sunday evening, I was off to Alumni Hall at the Naval Academy where portions of the weekend program were reprised under the auspices of the Annapolis 300 Capital Celebration group. At that concert I reacquainted myself with Mr. Ott, enjoyed a stirring rendition of excerpts from Randall Thompson's cloying but cute "Testament of Freedom" with the Academy Glee Club doing the choral honors, and wound everything up with conductor Gisele Ben-Dor's account of Charles Ives' sparkling, one-of-a-kind "Second Symphony."

Leon Fleisher's Ravel was definitely the highlight. For three decades the great pianist has endured a severe stress ailment in his right hand. In that time, the "Concerto for the Left Hand" has become Mr. Fleisher's signature work. And, as Saturday's performance showed, nobody plays it better.

It's easy to forget sometimes just how set apart the great ones are. Saturday, we were reminded in spades.

The extraordinary colors Mr. Fleisher summons in the lower octaves sound like mud when struck by lesser fingers. With such vibrant underpinnings, Ravel's jaunty, jazzy arpeggios emerged hTC not only with clarity, but with wit and marvelous personality.

Also incredible was Mr. Fleisher's handling of Ravel's cadenza which, somehow, asks five fingers to do the work of dozens.

Ms. Ben-Dor remains an adept accompanist and her orchestra seemed to be having a ball interacting with such a distinguished and admired guest. There was a nice, jazzy feel to the opening low string passages, and by the time the Bolero-like central tutti rolled around, the orchestra was in a grindy, sultry mood that perfectly matched the music.

The refurbished fiddle section let the side down once or twice, and there were some nasty intonation problems in the bassoons, but otherwise the band sounded terrific.

Symphony Executive Director Patricia Edwards and her husband, Arthur Edwards, commissioned Mr. Ott's overture in honor of the orchestra's 35th season.

The work, divided into three sections, tips a cap to the Cap City in many ways. There is a Chesapeake Bay sunrise, bits of "Maryland, My Maryland," and several respectful evocations of the "Eternal Father" Navy Hymn. (And, did Offenbach's "Barcarolle" make an appearance, or was it my imagination?)

I was charmed by the maestra's impudent, saucy reading of the Ives. Bits of "Camptown Races," "Bringing in the Sheaves," "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean," and even "Reveille" tug at the listener from all manner of rhythmic and harmonic directions.

With the "Hoe-down" from Aaron Copland's "Rodeo" tacked on for good measure, it is hard to imagine a concert ending with more raucous, all-American cheer.

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