Emil de Cou conducts dramatic 'Enoch Arden' by Virginia Chamber Orchestra

By Joan Reinthaler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

As with many conductors these days, Emil de Cou jets around from one directorship to another. Hot off his stint as associate conductor of the National Symphony -- and about to embark on his newest gig as the Pacific Northwest Ballet's music director -- he kicked off his second season Sunday as music director of the Virginia Chamber Orchestra.

De Cou is not a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. He likes multimedia and unusual twists, and the program that he chose for the VCO opener at the Northern Virginia Community College's Ernst Community Cultural Center fit the mold well. It featured his arrangement for chamber orchestra of Richard Strauss's "Enoch Arden," an hour-long work (originally scored for piano) in which the poetry is paramount and the music provides dramatic context.

Strauss might have gone the way of the soppy film score in setting Tennyson's melodramatic saga, but then that would not have been Strauss-like at all. Instead, his music offers vivid snapshots, anticipatory flashes and brief reflections on the human condition. De Cou's orchestral realization of the original piano score is as subtle as it is Straussian, and actor Gary Sloan's reading was wonderfully conceived, both touching and understated.

The orchestra, well-rehearsed and alert, managed to bring coherence to a role that proceeded in fits and starts. Its evocations of delight and serenity were as convincing as its storms and solemnly philosophical utterances, and the horns in particular had a splendid night. This is a piece that doesn't get performed often, and it deserves better. It would be good if de Cou and Sloan, who worked together beautifully here, could take it on the road.

The program's other piece was a rather routine reading of the Mendelssohn "Scottish" Symphony. Its broad outlines were evident and, in particular, the recitative-like introductions to the first and third movements were well-shaped. But the second movement, Vivace, needed a much tighter rein. And throughout, the dial-setting of its dynamics seemed stuck on mezzo-forte.

Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

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