Lorin Maazel led Symphonica Toscanini in a program that evoked the country of the orchestra's namesake.
Lorin Maazel led Symphonica Toscanini in a program that evoked the country of the orchestra's namesake. (New York Philharmonic)
Monday, January 15, 2007

Symphonica Toscanini

Lorin Maazel was 11 years old when he conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra at the behest of its legendary music director, Arturo Toscanini. Now, 65 years later, Maazel is music director of an orchestra named for Toscanini and currently touring to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the maestro's death.

Symphonica Toscanini is based in Parma, Italy, where its namesake was born, so the almost-all-Italian program presented Friday night at George Mason University's Center for the Arts was entirely appropriate. There was a little Rossini ("Barber of Seville" Overture), the sunny "Italian" Symphony by Mendelssohn, and two-thirds of Respighi's so-called "Roman Trilogy" ("Fountains of Rome" and "Pines of Rome," but no "Roman Festivals").

Toscanini was lionized by contemporaries but has often been criticized since his death for a haughty, dogmatic manner. He once said, "Be democrats in life, but aristocrats in art." Maazel conducts in a different age and is far more expressive, involved and, occasionally, puckish than Toscanini was ever known to be. This approach reaped rewards in soft sections (the opening of "Fountains of Rome" showcased elegantly quiet playing) and loud ones (the Mendelssohn finale was played with speed, flash and flair).

Maazel had a knack for making this concert of familiar music seem fresh by emphasizing details: pizzicati in the Rossini and the first movement of the Mendelssohn, flute and viola-plus-cello coloration in the Mendelssohn finale. There was occasional tinkering with the scores, notably some unnecessary rubato in the Rossini, but Maazel by and large let the music speak for itself -- as Toscanini himself was famous for allowing it to do.

-- Mark J. Estren

Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile

When the New Yorker dubs you "the most remarkable virtuoso in the . . . history of his instrument," your compositions are recorded by the Emerson Quartet, Joshua Bell and Yo-Yo Ma, and the MacArthur Foundation gives you of one of its "genius" awards, you could be forgiven for coasting a little. But bassist Edgar Meyer, still in his mid-40s, seems incapable of stagnation on any level. Saturday night at George Mason University's Center for the Arts, Meyer kicked off a 12-city tour with the young mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile (of the Grammy-winning bluegrass group Nickel Creek) in an evening largely devoted to their own compositions, "trying to get our act together," as Meyer put it.

The duo's music is, unsurprisingly, highly varied and eclectic. Their influences came from everywhere and nowhere; one heard echoes of bluegrass, Irish, classical, Dixieland and straight jazz, but with their unique texture and preternatural virtuosity, everything sounded free and new.

Thile deadpanned that "we're a good cover band, actually," before they also presented some arrangements of Bach keyboard works. These ears could not completely adjust to the disparate attacks of bass bow and mandolin pick in this music, but the duo played with care and artistry.

Thile is a puckish, totally natural player, who was sometimes jerked about like a rag doll by the music. It would have been nice to hear just a smidgen of vibrato from Meyer; his melodic lines were unnecessarily dry. But this was a remarkable evening from two immensely gifted artists.

-- Robert Battey

Music at the Mansion

The two promising young musicians who performed as part of the Music in the Mansion series at Strathmore on Saturday are at different points in their development, but both could easily have fine careers ahead of them. Fifteen-year-old cellist Alan Toda-Ambaras, who has been doing the master-class circuit with some of the cello world's top players, is in the process of building a technique to match his artistic imagination. Russian violinist Daniel Austrich, who at 23 has already won awards in a number of major competitions, is honing his subtlety. Each has the poise of a seasoned performer, and each showed off his strengths convincingly in the demanding repertoire chosen for this concert.

Toda-Ambaras set the bar high by opening with two works for unaccompanied cello, Bach's Suite No. 4 in E-flat and Britten's nine-movement Suite No. 3 in C Minor. He handled the Bach nicely, with an incisive attention to attack and tonality in the outer movements and a gentler and more lyrical approach to the middle movement Sarabande. The Britten, however, reflected a performer still coming to terms with the music: The playing seemed to lack a sense of direction and stylistic definition. At the end of the concert's first half, Toda-Ambaras and pianist Misako Toda (his mother) collaborated on a sensitive reading of the Debussy D Minor Sonata.

After intermission, Austrich and pianist Ilya Friedberg offered a competition-honed set of Russian works: Tchaikovsky's "Meditation" and the flashy Valse-Scherzo to begin and end with, and Prokofiev's Op. 14 Sonata No. 2 in D Minor and three Shostakovich "Fantastic Dances" in between. Austrich plays with a slightly rough-edged tone that was disconcerting in the sweet lines of the "Meditation" but was exactly right for the smashing reading of the Prokofiev that followed. This is a piece he has convincingly under his belt, and he never had to overplay it to project its wit and power. His most impressive playing, however, came in the three short Shostakovich dances, in which delicacy, timing and line gave the music a delicious lightness.

-- Joan Reinthaler

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