Second-year conductor finally to put imprimatur on Annapolis Symphony; ASO will launch season tomorrow with song, color and ethnic flair


Any season-opening concert conveys a special sense of excitement, but the adrenalin flowing this weekend as the Annapolis Symphony opens its 1999-2000 subscription series will be the result of more than mere opening-night glamour.

Although Leslie B. Dunner begins his second season at the ASO helm tomorrow at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, this is the first year the charismatic conductor gets to place his imprimatur squarely on the artistic fortunes of his orchestra. Due to his late hiring in spring 1998, Dunner conducted only three of the ASO's five subscription pairs last season, and the offerings -- however enjoyable -- were programmed on the fly.

This year, by contrast, every selected work and engaged soloist speaks to Dunner's artistic vision for his orchestra.

He begins this season with three masterworks full of song, color and ethnic flair.

The robust melodies of Bedrich Smetana's overture to his opera, "The Bartered Bride," bespeak vigorous Czech nationalism.

The uplifting lyricism of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto sings in the voice of a uniquely American brand of romanticism, while much of the genius of Jean Sibelius' grandly expansive Second Symphony lies in its evocations of the rugged landscapes of the composer's native Finland.

The interest level is upped further this weekend by the appearance of yet another gifted young American violinist ascending the ranks of her profession. Still in her early 20s, Jennifer Koh has garnered praise for her solo performances with the orchestras of Chicago, St. Louis, Houston and Detroit.

Notable for winning top prize at the 1994 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, Koh recently made her first appearances at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.

The Barber Concerto provides a true test of her artistry, for only in the brief, hyperactive finale does sheer bravura carry the day. In the first two movements, beauty of tone and a penchant for songful expression are the essential ingredients for success. Knuckle-busting pyrotechnics are of no account whatsoever.

Not since 1982 has the orchestra essayed the Sibelius Second, and it will be interesting indeed to hear Dunner exploit the tonal resources of his orchestra to achieve the contrasting moods of this extraordinary symphony.

Scuttlebutt has it that a brilliant new principal trumpeter has been engaged, and there's nothing like the triumphal ending of Sibelius Two to hear what the new guy has to offer!

The Annapolis Symphony performs at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. Information: 410-263-0907.

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