The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra concert Friday night was a showcase not only for two of its principal musicians but also for its new performing home, the acoustically superior Concert Hall of the George Mason University Center for the Arts.
The 800 or so seats on the main floor are positioned in front of the stage in a wide rectangular arc, providing a sense of immediacy to what happens on stage and the ambiance of a recital hall.
In the massive 1,100-seat balcony above, this immediacy is obviously sacrificed, but the payoff comes in the sound. At least at first hearing, the balcony acoustics are blessed with a crystalline clarity that allows individual instruments to be easily distinguished within a large orchestral texture. For the most part, the works that the orchestra played benefited from the clarity. It remains to be seen if the hall also will support a solid, massed sound, but all indications are that it will.
Conductor William Hudson opened the program with Samuel Barber's familiar Adagio for Strings (recently popularized as the background music in the movie "Platoon") dedicated to Leonard Bernstein. The orchestra's string sections seem to be improving over time, and they did credit to the work. Intonation and quality of sound were admirable. Overall, the performance was steady, even-handed, sometimes inspiring, but also never quite cathartic.
Principal flutist Joan Voorhees was featured soloist in Vivaldi's Concerto for Piccolo in D minor. This diminutive instrument has a tendency to be piercing and shrill. But in Voorhees' hands, the tone was sweet and the execution very musical through the bright and cheerful Allegro, the clear and pleasant Largo and the perky final Allegro Molto. The orchestra, trimmed to baroque-size, played cleanly but added little in the way of style.
There seems to be an unfortunate dearth of concertos for trumpet and orchestra. Why else are there only two that ever seem to be performed: one by Hummell and the other by Haydn? The Haydn was the selection for principal trumpet Daniel Smith. The tempos were quite brisk, with a rather romantic reading to the accompaniment by Hudson.
Smith was excellent in the trills and ornamentation, and in the difficult cadenzas, but in most of the lyrical sections his tone became tight on the top, just when the phrases should open up. In addition, there was not enough attention paid to the precise character of the attacks and to the connections between phrases. His interpretation came across as too casual, with little sense of elegance or style.
Prokofiev's brilliant and monumental Fifth Symphony came after intermission. The reviewer heard this work from the balcony while the others were heard from the floor section. The opening had a sense of dark grandeur, with its growling brass and the wonderful use of the bass drum to underscore the drama (in the balcony, you could actually feel the vibrations from the softly played drum, a very impressive acoustical accomplishment). The second movement, an Allegro Moderato, was jazzy and compelling, with imaginative orchestrations such as solo lines for bassoon and piano in unison.
But the promise of these first movements was not fulfilled in the final two. The spare and angular Adagio begged for more attention to phrasing and also for some direction to the musical ideas. And the final Allegro Giocoso seemed disjointed and at times on the slow side.
With the clear acoustics come some risk: Every nuance can be heard, so every nuance must be carefully planned. In this case, there was not quite the thoughtful attention to detail that the work deserved and the hall demanded.