The Alexandria Symphony presented an ambitious program, including Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto, Saturday night at T.C. Williams High School. Although parts of the performance were up to the level that audiences have come to expect from this group, there were also significant flaws.
Leonard Bernstein's "Overture to Candide," the opening work, was rough at first with some muddy playing from the violins. But when the main theme came in, played thick and rich by the lower strings, the work seemed to take shape, and ended with strength and adequate sparkle.
The real problems came in the Rachmaninoff Concerto. At times, soloist Glenn Sales and conductor Kim Allen Kluge seemed to be playing different pieces. Sales took extraordinary liberties with rhythms and tempos throughout -- he tended to rush everything -- and Kluge seemed to be struggling to keep his forces together in response.
Kluge would establish one tempo and then Sales would take another. For one lengthy section in the first movement, it became apparent that the entire orchestra was lost; they only came together again when some clear patterns emerged from the piano and Kluge could give an unambiguous downbeat.
Kluge, as is his custom, conducted without a score. In doing so, he dispensed with an item that carried important additional clues on how to bring in, say, a particular instrument. With a score in front of him, a conductor might mouth the words "measure 56" to the second oboe, and then "measure 65" to the cellos, and pretty soon, with some luck, most of the orchestra is back on track. In this case, however, Kluge could only give a downbeat and eye contact to a troubled section. It wasn't enough. Even the most experienced conductors use scores when soloists are involved (and even the best soloists have memory lapses).
It would also have been wise for Kluge to have taken Sales's tempos, even if they were not to his liking. At least everyone would have been together and the disaster would have been averted.
Even with these kinds of coordination problems, there were some enjoyable moments, such as the simple but moody opening theme from the piano and the overall shape of the slow movement.
Without an errant soloist to contend with, Kluge did a much better job with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 (Op. 47), although he seemed to be micro-managing the interpretation at the expense of larger musical values. For instance, at the end of the first movement there are two extremely beautiful and affecting chord changes. Kluge set up each change with a little carefully controlled hesitation. Rather than letting the music speak for itself, this gesture eliminated the surprise value of the transitions and, ultimately, limited their effectiveness.
But there were also some expressive moments. The Largo was beautifully played, with a wonderful oboe solo by Pamela Ben. And the finale had a sense of excitement and risk that was breathtaking. Other excellent solos were from Joel Berman on violin in the second movement and Emil E. George on horn and Sarah Stern on flute at the end of the first movement.
The effect of the Largo was lessened by a serious physical distraction: to conduct this movement with his hands, Kluge put his baton in his pocket, and it stuck out through the back of his tails for the whole time. It only takes one little silly thing to distract an audience from something sublime.
On the whole, Kluge's work still suffers from excessive physical gestures from the podium: constant gesticulating that can get annoying and interfere with the music. When he first took over the Alexandria Symphony, the group was clearly in need of inspiration. Now, however, he has a formidable ensemble. These include two new section heads, Richard Parnas and Donald Radding on viola and second violin, respectively, who both recently retired after combined service of 78 years with the National Symphony. And there are many excellent players in other positions. To do excellent work, players of this quality need inspired guidance and clear indications, but not continuous exhortation.