After having to cancel the final concert of last season because of budgetary problems, the Arlington Symphony Orchestra began a new season Saturday night at Bishop O'Connell High School with plenty of vigor, a distinctive, if perhaps a bit monochromatic, programming concept and an outstanding young violinist.
The evening was dedicated entirely to Latin music. Latin in sound, that is, rather than origin, since two of the composers, Frenchman Georges Bizet and contemporary American Morton Gould, developed their craft decidedly outside the Spanish tradition.
The persistent bass of the familiar "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen Suite No. 2 was an effective opening reminder of the importance of rhythm to Spanish-inspired music. (Conductor David Sz. Pollitt inexplicably left off the usual opening "Smuggler's March," although it was mentioned in the program notes.) The lyric nocturne, which is Micaela's aria in the opera, featured lovely solo phrasing by violinist Louis Wolcott, and the frenzied "Gypsy Dance" was an exciting finish.
Thirteen-year-old Jennifer Koh, a rising young star from Illinois, played Edouardo Lalo's challenging "Symphonie espagnole" with great precision and expressivity. She is a phenomenal talent; her performance demonstrated virtually perfect intonation, superb articulation and, in the slower "Andante," a beautiful control of the longer lines. All that was lacking was a gutsy (and also more risky) sound in the more passionate moments. Hopefully that will come with age.
Lalo's work is more of a showpiece for violin than a work that stands on its own merits. (Why are so many virtuoso pieces like that?) The rhythms, which seem so sparkling at first, start to wear thin after a while. Good ideas kept coming up, but went nowhere.
That paucity of development was a paradigm for the entire concert. Each piece began with great promise: an interesting rhythm here, a captivating harmonic progression there. But then came more of the same. In one or two pieces on a longer symphonic program, that is perfectly acceptable, even refreshing. But as a whole evening, it lacked substance.
During intermission, a mariachi band of two guitars and a harp provided Latin background music in the crowded lobby. It sounded like fun, but it was hard to hear over the intermission talk.
"Huapango," a delightful and exhilarating rhythmic feast by Mexican composer Jose Pablo Moncayo, had plenty of verve and fire but needed more articulation from the percussion.
Pollitt invited Gualberto Capdeville, music director of the Puerto Rico Philharmonic Pops Concert Orchestra, to be guest conductor for a few pieces. This was, according to Pollitt, to bring some interpretive authenticity to the program.
To be perfectly honest, though, pops is pops. It all sounded like nothing more than warmed over Mantovani with a few Latin characteristics thrown in. Capdeville was a perfectly capable conductor, and the orchestra played well enough, but the schmaltzy, easy-listening style was simply out of place on a symphonic program. Two of the three short pieces were songs, with which soprano Michelle Rios did a credible job. But her voice was a little foggy and her vibrato occasionally intrusive.
Morton Gould's "Latin American Symphonette," a set of four dance movements, was the most interesting music on the program. In "Rumba," snatches of themes and rhythms ran through the orchestra. "Tango" was spare and moody, with glissandos (slides) from the bass fiddles creating a dark but also tongue-in-cheek atmosphere. Although "Guaracha" was lively, witty and even cute, it brought back the feelings of sameness of style that permeated the evening.
But the thunderous syncopated percussion of the final dance, "Conga," a bold amalgamation of Latin and African rhythms, quickly dispelled those feelings, and the program ended with, literally, a bang.