Highs and lows at National Orchestral Institute program

June 22, 2014

The University of Maryland’s National Orchestral Institute, an annual summer event since 1988, draws top talent from colleges and conservatories around the country for a month of intensive training and concerts. Its fourth program (of five) Saturday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center might have been subtitled “Technicolor” — works by Strauss (Till Eulenspiegel lustige Streiche), Britten (Four Sea Interludes) and Holst (The Planets), whose most prominent feature is a dazzling array of creative sonorities and tone-painting.

Perhaps the most enjoyable facet of the NOI concerts is that the orchestra fields a full complement of strings, far more than one sees at Baltimore Symphony concerts at Strathmore, for example. This gives conductors a shot at melding proper balances among the sections.

British conductor Christopher Seaman, who led the Rochester Philharmonic for many years, seemed to have a good enough rapport with his young charges, but his musical direction was often flabby and undercharacterized. He handled traffic-cop duties effectively; the ensemble was admirably tight in the bustling “Mercury” and “Uranus” sections of the Holst. But slower music often sagged; each phrase of the Britten “Moonlight” sat like a lump, with no overarching line, and the Holst “Venus” drifted.

There was never any really soft playing in tutti passages, and despite the strings’ advantageous numbers, Seaman often left them unprotected from overwhelming outbursts in the brass, a recurring problem in the Strauss and in the Britten “Storm” section. Most appalling was his decision to perform “Neptune,” the closing work, with a synthesizer standing in for the women’s chorus. I know the NOI can find a women’s chorus because it did so last year. Here, a work that is supposed to end with a magical view of the infinite ended instead with a teeth-grating musical affront.

Notwithstanding, these musicians, many on the cusp of professional careers, should be proud of their work last week. The winds were particularly clear and solid throughout all sections, the brass in “Saturn” produced a wondrous, bear-like sound, and the atmosphere in the hall (likely with many friends and family present) was like a pep rally. The NOI’s final program (led by Leonard Slatkin) is this Saturday.

The National Orchestral Institute chamber rehearsals are hosted at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. (Geoff Sheil/Geoff Sheil)

Battey is a freelance writer.

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