Music Review: Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducts the NOI Philharmonic

Harth-Bedoya (Gordon Trice - Gordon Trice)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2010

One of D.C.'s best orchestras played its last concert of the season on Saturday night. Too bad it convenes only once a year.

Each summer, the National Orchestral Insitute at the University of Maryland draws young players between 18 and 28 from around the country -- and raves from critics. The program involves an intense month of coaching with a starry assortment of faculty members from prestigious orchestras (it would be great to hear the faculty play together as an orchestra sometime) and performances with noted conductors. Miguel Harth-Bedoya, music director of the Fort Worth Symphony, to whose name the adjective "rising" is usually appended, led Saturday.

It's easy to love a youth orchestra: The stereotype, which tends to be true, is that the kids, loving the music and full of hope and ambition, have an edge over professional orchestras struggling with routine. Whatever worries one may have for the future of classical music, there appear to be more and more young musicians able to play better and better on a technical level. Put these factors together and you get the kind of sound heard Saturday: confident, unified and downright voluptuous, with chocolatey cellos and sinuous clarinets.

Some of the sensuousness had to do with the program, large works that wallow in the sound an orchestra is able to make: Brahms's Third Symphony and Elgar's "Enigma" Variations, separated by Jennifer Higdon's oft-performed "blue cathedral," which perhaps wallows less than it stretches itself exultantly out over the massed forces on stage. All three pieces represent active orchestral workouts with lots of solo opportunities. Between the concertmaster's gutsy, tough violin in the Higdon, the mellifluous principal viola in the Elgar, and several other notable turns, there was no need to miss the presence of a featured soloist.

Harth-Bedoya emphasized the sensuousness, too: caressing the music with his hands, inflating it with wide embraces of his arms, never quite leaving it alone even when a soloist might have managed equally well with less massaging. From him, one wanted a little less sensuality and a little more rigor: The Brahms, particularly, was slightly undifferentiated in its dynamic, tending to be either kind-of quiet or kind-of loud, and there were a few hints of sluggishness. Still, he and the players were able to access thrilling energy in the fast parts, and the last movement sizzled. In Elgar's famous "Nimrod" variation, he held the music to a tiny thread of pianissimo, pregnant with anticipation, and let the sound gradually rise and grow and blossom. It was a beautiful example of the effectiveness of quiet playing.

Higdon, who won this year's Pulitzer Prize, is a reassuring figure for audiences who think they don't like contemporary music. They tend to be happily surprised by her effective use of the orchestra in pieces that are strong and appealing without being aggressive about their artistic agenda. "Blue cathedral," according to her Web site, has been played by more than 200 orchestras since its premiere in 2000. It does everything a classical piece is supposed to do by taking listeners on a journey of sound toward a majestic though unstated goal, while stopping to examine things along the way: now giving little licks of bells or struck metal, now raising individual melodies over a gentle texture created by having man of the players shake Chinese reflex balls, creating a quiet tapestry of sound like falling rain.

The National Orchestral Institute is also devoted to exploring different perspectives on performance. At the end of intermission, the brass section assembled on a balcony of the lobby of the Clarice Smith Center and offered a short piece: a nice way to refocus the audience after the break and gently draw them back inside.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company