“It’s great to hear them in a good hall,” was the comment on everyone’s lips after the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra took over the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center for its 50th anniversary gala concert Sunday night. Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves tackled Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder,” a rare treat beyond her usual roles or White House fare.
This is not the ASO of 10 years earlier, or even five. Jose-Luis Novo, music director since 2005, brought this “Tristan and Isolde”-laced song cycle to heights never reached in the “Tristan Und Isolde” selections played just after his arrival on the Annapolis podium.
In the third song, Graves lofted over swirls of seething strings that hushed and rose effortlessly under Novo’s graceful guidance. Graves’s burnished lower octave mated well with the viola’s “Tristan” theme. In “Schmerzen” (Anguish), the French horn burst on the scene with improved command. In “Traume,” the woodwinds blossomed.
Next, Graves changed from ice-gray silk into a gown of tawny bronze to sing “Il est doux, il est bon” from Jules Massenet’s “Herodiade.” The switch likewise from German to French was more becoming to her range and timbre. Wagner’s score had been in front of her; she had no need for Massenet. She owned this work; the orchestra rich and ripe behind her.
The second half bore fruit from a two-year composer residency with Gabriela Lena Frank. Her newly commissioned work, “Raices” (Roots — Peruvian roots in this case), is a concerto popping and vibrant. Each movement leapt off from an unexpected instrumental perch, such as a wood block.
A great move by Novo put the young Netanel Draiblate in the concertmaster’s seat in 2010. Draiblate’s extended duet with the principal cello in “Raices” showed what promise lies ahead for ASO fans for many seasons to come.
The crowning affirmation came from the night’s finale: Suite No. 2 from “Daphnis et Chloe.” The ASO passed the test of creating the shimmering texture of all the teeming voices of nature in Ravel’s work. Novo’s smart programming showed the orchestra in full unison and as individual players ready to attempt the best.
Turning 50 is no small feat for an American orchestra these days. If maestro Novo continues to carve out the kind of even, gracious path he did with this concert, the ASO should get another 50.
Buker is a freelance writer.