Music Review: Fairfax Symphony Orchestra at George Mason University

By Mark J. Estren
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 4, 2009

And now we have the thinker.

Each of the six candidates to become the new music director of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra has shown a distinctive style in his or her "audition concert." Christopher Zimmerman, the last of the group, put together the most unusual and thoughtful program, and then tried -- perhaps a little too hard -- to explain his reasoning to the audience at George Mason University's Center for the Arts on Saturday.

Zimmerman is British, but unlike the other five candidates, he did not present a work from his home country. Nor did he do a standard-repertoire warhorse such as Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony or Beethoven's Seventh. And he used the full orchestra in only one piece.

Zimmerman opened with Haydn's Symphony No. 39, a fascinating G minor work whose stop-and-start first movement is positively eerie. Zimmerman got the silences right -- a crucial element here -- and drew very effective contrasts between forte and piano sections. Precision baton work, a nicely shaped minuet and a dramatic finale created a first-rate performance.

Violinist Chee-Yun was soloist in Czech composer Sylvie Bodorov√°'s "Concerto dei Fiori" for violin and strings, whose U.S. premiere Zimmerman led in 1998. This tonal but restless 12-minute work includes lovely lower-string writing and a spectacular cadenza halfway through -- in which Chee-Yun showed prodigious technique. The concerto, mostly quiet and thoughtful, ends not with flowery spectacle but with a quotation from Bach's Cantata No. 180. Chee-Yun saved the drama and fireworks for a marvelous encore of Kreisler's Recitativo and Scherzo that showed off the wonderfully even tone of her 1708 Stradivarius.

The full orchestra -- and audience -- got a real workout in Shostakovich's intricate, noisy and anguished Symphony No. 10, a work permeated by the composer's personal D-S-C-H musical monogram (D, E-flat, C, B in German notation). Zimmerman pushed the strings, especially in the quicksilver second movement, and they delivered beautifully. And he paid close attention not only to sarcasm and grotesquerie but also to soft passages -- this orchestra can handle quietude, but few conductors ask it to.

The FSO's board of directors meets May 20 to discuss the six candidates. When it comes to Zimmerman, they will need to decide how his challenging programming will be received by an audience that in recent years has become accustomed to more conventional fare.

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