Fairfax Symphony presents Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff works
For their season's opener Saturday, conductor Christopher Zimmerman and his Fairfax Symphony Orchestra programmed a pair of lesser known works by two of classical music's best-known composers. Tchaikovsky's Fantasy-Overture, "The Tempest," is easily as compelling as his much beloved "Romeo and Juliet" Fantasy; Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony, which seems destined to reside in the shadows of his Second Symphony and of his piano concertos, is probably a harder sell. Between the two and perhaps to soothe unfamiliarity came Schumann's A Minor Piano Concerto, with a muscular but lyrical performance by soloist Phillips Bianconi.
Both the Tchaikovsky and the Rachmaninoff pose daunting technical challenges to any orchestra and, as might be expected, stuff happened in this performance at George Mason University's Center for the Arts. The strings struggled to impose clarity on their highest-energy passages. Horns had both moments of strain and moments of glory, and there were times (even in the bass drum) when ensemble went astray.
But looking at the larger picture, the orchestra made very good music. The Tchaikovsky emerged delightfully, its turbulent seas calmed, its love themes tender and sunny. That the Rachmaninoff didn't fare as well and seemed capricious and aimless had more to do with the composer than with the orchestra: Marches appear and peter out. There are delicious dance moments and long stretches that sound like street-scene noises, all couched in the modality of Russian folk culture, but little that defines why this is happening. What the orchestra did best was to manage the textural balance that makes Rachmaninoff's sounds so characteristic.
Balance was a problem in the Schumann. Bianconi knew just what he wanted to do and went for it fearlessly. The orchestra, however, stayed tentatively in the background and had a lot of trouble getting the last movement fugue out of the starting gate. Mostly it sounded like orchestra and soloist needed a little more rehearsal time together.
-- Joan Reinthaler