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Strong performance shows new orchestra is worthy of support

As I headed down to Southern High School on Friday evening, it was not my intention to attend the inaugural concert of the Londontowne Symphony Orchestra for the purpose of reviewing it.

After all, this was a new ensemble of 40 players made up of community musicians, high school kids, a couple of professional "ringers" and several music teachers from the Anne Arundel County public schools.

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Rehearsal time, I figured, hadn't been copious, so why subject the orchestra to a public evaluation just as things were getting off the ground?

Well, yes, there were some rough spots in Londontowne's opening program, which consisted of Beethoven's Egmont Overture, Schubert's Symphony No. 5 and the buoyant 2nd Piano Concerto of Camille Saint-Saens.

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But, on the whole, the players did such a good job of holding things together on their maiden voyage that it is fitting and proper to announce to the public that this enterprising new chamber orchestra, founded by Kathy Solano, a string teacher in the county schools for more than two decades, is worthy of support.

For this opening concert, the Londontowners enlisted the aid of Richard Scerbo, a graduate of Southern High School who is enrolled in the graduate conducting program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

It was a felicitous choice. Scerbo is all business on the podium, clear, not fussy, with a definite sense of how he wants things to go. Egmont was suitably declamatory, the Saint-Saens had zip when it needed it and a measure of elegance when that was stylistically appropriate.

Best of all was a Schubert No. 5 with assertive tempos that never rushed to the point of compromising the songful flair that defines the great romantic composer's style.

The third movement was a case in point: zippy in the opening and closing "menuetto," yet lilting in the heavenly Trio at the section's core.

For the most part, the players responded in kind, particularly with bold trumpet work in the Beethoven and exemplary solo work by flutist Chester Burke (also of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra) throughout the Schubert. A good thing that is - for the 19-year-old composer crafted a symphony that contains almost enough solo work to be thought of as a concerto for flute.

Oboes and French horns would seem to be the best slots for the new orchestra to augment its existing personnel.

The players seemed to be pleased to share the stage with pianist Cristine Brunner in the Saint-Saens Concerto.

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Though not exactly helped by the clangy, piano-shaped object available at Southern High School, Brunner brought real joy to the work, from the baroque-inspired arpeggios that open it to the bouncy theme that animates the concluding "Presto."

Along with concertmistress Solano, flutist Maureen McCusker, principal clarinetist Amy Tubman and several other members of the orchestra, Brunner is a music teacher in the Anne Arundel County public school system.

At a time when the teaching of music is becoming more and more marginalized amid Maryland's standardized testing craze, our music teachers are proving anew how much they mean to their students and to the community at large.

Friday's concert was nicely attended. But here's hoping even more people go to Southern High School at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 9 when Amy Wilson, assistant conductor of the Greater Baltimore Youth Symphony Orchestra, conducts the Londontowners in Rossini's rollicking Barber of Seville Overture, Bruch's impassioned 1st Violin Concerto and Dvorak's radiant Symphony No. 8.


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