Columbia Orchestra plays with verve in opening concert


I heard the Columbia Orchestra for the first time Saturday evening when the ensemble opened its 22nd season -- its first under music director Jason Love -- with Verdi's overture to "Nabucco," Beethoven's First Piano Concerto, and the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."

The overwhelming impression is that Columbia hired the right guy.

Love has the musicians playing not only with verve and passion, but with the awareness to enter into the emotional core of the works they perform.

This was especially true in the Mussorgsky-Ravel "Pictures," the most famous museum stroll in the history of music.

I won't claim the Columbians got all the notes right, but they certainly got inside the churning emotions Mussorgsky pulled out of those paintings. We got an atmospheric "Old Castle," a delightfully hyperactive "Ballet of the Chicks," excellent trumpet work depicting the kvetching and gossiping of "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle," a ripping "Hut on Fowl's Legs" and a triumphant "Great Gate of Kiev."

The ensemble boasts a strong trumpet section, a nice complement of flutes, pretty good trombones and a first-class principal oboe and clarinet. They were all put to excellent use in the Verdi overture, which rang out with panache.

This orchestra also knows how to hire a soloist.

Pianist Hsiu-Hui Wang of Columbia gave us a graceful, buoyant C major Concerto of Beethoven.

There is an appealing sense of lift to her playing, which gave Beethoven's passage work a balletic quality.

Wang was especially affecting in the slow movement where her melodies were complemented beautifully by clarinetist Karen Hopkinson. Wang probably would like to have a few measures of her cadenza back again, but otherwise she was marvelous.

As with most of the missed entrances and violated rests in "Pictures," the orchestra's ragged handling of Beethoven's 1st movement exposition smacked more of mental error than of technical inadequacy. About everything in the opening tutti returns later, and the movement certainly got better as it went. But why not nail it the first time, folks?

Let me also mention the percussionists who joked, banged and crashed their way through the concert warm-up in, shall we say, a less than decorous manner.

It came as no shock that their first entrance in the Verdi was rushed and out of control.

In music, as in life, proper intention matters.

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