It was as if two different James Rosses manned the podium Saturday for the first full-orchestra concert of this year’s National Orchestral Institute Festival at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center. First was the before-intermission Ross, who way over-conducted a reading of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and then came the after-intermission Ross, whose concise and economical clarity brought coherence to two sprawling works, the Adagio from Mahler’s 10th Symphony and Edgard Varese’s “Ameriques.”
For the Beethoven, Ross danced around, outlining every eighth note, drawing swooping air-pictures of phrase shapes with his baton tip and giving great expansive downbeats (or sidebeats) that left him with arms spread wide. For their part, the orchestra gave him exactly what he asked for. The 100-plus young musicians, drawn to the Institute from universities and conservatories from around the country, produced gorgeous sonorities. The violas and cellos sang; the horns proclaimed and the basses danced through their quick passages as nimbly as piccolos, but the music itself, following the dictates of those big baton swirls, lacked all sense of wonder and subtlety.
It was a different story after intermission, however. The Adagio movement was Mahler’s swan song, and Ross, with flamboyance under wraps, led a well-planned and paced reading that allowed the resignation and sense of peace to unfold quietly. He kept balances in hand, allowed phrases to develop organically and gave his forces exactly what they needed to do their job.
Varese finished writing “Ameriques” in 1922, a few years after moving to New York from Paris. Judging from the score, he found his new home noisy, confusing and, sometimes, dangerous. Devoid of any discernible thematic content, the piece surges from episode to episode, its moments of almost impressionistic peace interrupted by explosions of anger and violence and by a siren (the one used in this performance was an octave lower than it should have been for real effect). Ross led it beautifully, maintaining order in the midst of chaos, and the orchestra responded with power and conviction.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.