Andrew Litton led the Virginia Chamber Orchestra's concert Sunday evening at the Sheraton Premiere in a thoughtful, entertaining interpretation of music by Anton Dvorak and Felix Mendelssohn.
In Dvorak's Serenade for Strings, the orchestra's accomplished string players displayed a wide range of emotions under Litton's effective direction. Litton's vision of the music was clear from his playful treatment of the melodies in the waltz movement to the nostalgic, but not sorrowful, larghetto. In the scherzo, one could hear the folk themes that empower Dvorak's melodies.
Litton achieved a tricky balance in a hall that is unforgiving to the sound mix if the conductor is not careful. But he could not compensate for the sad fact that the Sheraton Premiere is a hotel, not a concert hall. The clatter of doors that were not designed to open and close quietly, the rumble of lobby or kitchen activity and the constant hum of the ventilation system affected adversely an otherwise well-performed program.
William Steck, the concertmaster for the National Symphony Orchestra, joined the orchestra for Mendelssohn's Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings. Litton, who conducted from the piano, and Steck formed their efforts into a seamless presentation.
Steck, who will also play with the Alexandria Symphony this season, may give the appearance of a gentle schoolmaster, but the illusion fades when he launches into his performance. The outer movements required, and received, virtuosic displays by violinist and pianist alike, while the haunting adagio was played sensitively.
At 28, Litton may seem young for his many accomplishments, at both the podium and the piano, but it's even more striking that Mendelssohn was only 14 when he wrote the concerto. That the piece was written by a young composer may explain why the concerto at times seems to be going at cross-purposes, with the orchestra cascading along in Mozartean classicism and the soloists playing more romantic parts.
After the concert, the orchestra offered Litton's recent recording "Gershwin Gold" as a premium to orchestra supporters. The recording, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, features the first recorded performance of Hershey Kay's lush orchestration of songs from the Gershwin Songbook, as well as Ferde Grofe's original orchestration of "Rhapsody in Blue" for the Paul Whiteman big band. Litton, as conductor and piano soloist, gives "Rhapsody" a rambunctious jazz-age sound that is lacking in the more symphonic version familiar to most listeners.