ASO concert strikes strange chord

Of the scores of Annapolis Symphony concerts I've attended, none has been weirder than the one given at Maryland Hall on Saturday evening.

The program was designed to show off the diverse talents of one of the ASO's favorite guests, Ruben Gonzalez, the distinguished co-concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony.


Not only was Mr. Gonzalez to solo in the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Gisele Ben-Dor and her players, he also was to ascend the podium to conduct excerpts from one of his own compositions. That piece, "Dionisias and Lone Wolf," is a symphony based on themes of self-discovery and release in Hermann Hesse's novel, "Steppenwolf."

Ms. Ben-Dor was to round out the concert with Ravel's orchestrated version of Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."


It didn't work. Oh my, how it didn't work!

The bulk of "Dionisias," which opened the concert, turned out to be a crazy quilt of kitschy encounters with big-band swing, Viennese waltzes, blues, a rumba, klezmer and, of all things, Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik"!

Joining the high jinks was Gonzalez's "Dionisias" collaborator, Mariano Krauz, who bopped onstage wearing a flaming red leisure suit and tooted his oboe obbligatos with all the contorted hyperactivity of a Dixieland clarinetist wailing away.

As jaws dropped all around me, I couldn't help wondering who thought this goofy thing would be an appropriate complement to a Beethoven concerto.

Yes, concerts should be fun and games, sometimes. But an audience shouldn't be so blown away by the appetizer that it becomes desensitized to the nuances of the rest of the musical meal. Somebody in quality control was asleep on this one.

Also on the strange side was the Gonzalez-Ben-Dor account of the Beethoven concerto. Parts of it were marvelous. The big theme sang out with warm lyricism, and Mr. Gonzalez made wonderful sparks fly in the first movement cadenza. As the solo pyrotechnics drew to a close, the bassoon emerged with a statement of the main theme that could not have been lovelier.

But there were serious disagreements between soloist and conductor about tempo. Dangerously out-of-sync moments late in the first movement development section made the soloist tentative just as he should have been singing out some of Beethoven's most achingly tender phrases.

The slow movement came and went competently enough if a little too brusquely, and the Rondo possessed little in the way of sass, polish or fun.


Ms. Ben-Dor's colorful and dramatic "Pictures" was the highlight of the evening. I could imagine more expansive phrasing in the recurring "Promenades" and the famous "Great Gate of Kiev," but interludes like the "Old Castle," "Catacombs" was an example of Ms. Ben-Dor at her very best.