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Guest conductor inspires orchestra; Concert: Christopher Wilkins, music director of the San Antonio Symphony, led the Annapolis Symphony in a vibrant performance. His interpretation of Antonin Dvorak's "New World" Symphony was particularly strong.


When guest conductor Christopher Wilkins was left to his own devices Saturday at the third concert of the Annapolis Symphony's subscription season, he inspired the orchestra to produce some of the most vibrant playing we've heard from it in quite a while.

Wilkins, 41, and in his eighth season at the helm of the San Antonio Symphony, turned in an expansive, admirably dramatic reading of Antonin Dvorak's "New World" Symphony that had Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts buzzing with approval.

The work's "East Meets West" elements emerged powerfully in this conductor's sensitively drawn interpretation. Sturdy Czech rhythms and melodies suggestive of Dvorak's eastern European roots contrasted beautifully with the rustic American folk tunes the composer had in mind as he crafted this most multicultural of symphonies.

Wilkins paced the whole thing like a consummate professional. Phrasing was supple and clearly delineated, and the players entered fully into the spirit of this much-loved work. So engrossing were the final bars of the opening movement that for once, no one in the hall moved, spoke, coughed, or clapped until the all-important moment of silent release had passed. You live long enough, you see everything.

Excellent playing came from all quarters. Praise is due to the brass players for their enthusiastic but balanced sounds. Exemplary solo work came from the woodwinds as well, especially from the anonymous English horn player who made the famous largo sing so eloquently. (Shame on the program for not mentioning her.)

The upper strings had passion aplenty, while the cello section -- a black hole on the Maryland Hall stage for a couple of seasons -- sounded much improved.

The Wilkins-Annapolis Symphony collaboration also yielded a smartly played romp through Rossini's irresistible overture to "The Italian Girl in Algiers."

Less successful, I regret to say, was violinist Livia Sohn's treatment of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. No question that the 22-year-old product of the Juilliard School possesses immense technical gifts and is headed for a major career. Her tone is gorgeous, and technically there's nothing she can't do on the violin.

But the Sibelius is a moody, volatile work that defies any generic point of emotional reference. Hot bravura alone can pretty much get you through, say, Bruch's G-minor Concerto, while a sweet-toned fiddler who can sing like a bird can make a go of the Mendelssohn E minor.

Sibelius is different. Complex undercurrents abound. The lyricism required to express the desolation of the first movement is not the same as the lyricism of the second movement, which sings so soulfully.

In Sohn's hands, both interludes sounded lovely -- but pretty much the same.

I missed the variety of expression heard in the finest renditions of this extraordinary concerto. Give her credit, though. She had those polar bears dancing a mean polonaise in the fiery final movement.

She's gifted, and I'm glad I heard her, but the Sibelius isn't her concerto. Not yet, anyway.

As for Wilkins, he can come back to Annapolis any time he likes.

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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