Curtis Symphony Orchestra/Eschenbach in Carnegie Hall

Bernstein
West Side Story – Symphonic Dances
Penderecki
Concerto for Viola and Orchestra
Stravinsky
The Rite of Spring

Roberto Díaz (viola)

The Curtis Symphony Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach


Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 2 May, 2007
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

There are several important factors which set the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia apart from other top-level conservatories: it is small, with an enrolment of only 160, every student is on a full scholarship, talent being the only consideration for admission, and students graduate when their teachers feel they are ready. All of this creates a very nurturing environment for these young artists, and at this Gala Concert at Carnegie Hall the Curtis Symphony Orchestra proved itself to be a formidable ensemble.

While the Vienna Philharmonic still has only one female regular member, the harpist, the Curtis orchestra’s string section (except for the double basses) is dominated by Asian women. Judging by the names in the program, many of the players are foreign-born, which may help to explain why the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” wasn’t played quite as idiomatically as one would expect to hear from an American orchestra, especially in the strings. They produced a gorgeous sound, to be sure, but at times almost too polished for the genre. The brass and percussion players were more in line with the style, and their unbridled enthusiasm carried the piece.

Succeeding Gary Graffman, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal violist Roberto Díaz took over as the President of the Curtis Institute last fall, continuing a line of performing artists at the helm which has included John de Lancie, Rudolf Serkin, Efrem Zimbalist, and Josef Hofmann.

Diaz has previously performed Penderecki’s Viola Concerto under the composer’s direction in both of its incarnations, the full orchestra version of 1983, and the chamber orchestra version of 1984. On this occasion the latter had been chosen, but performed with a string compliment of over 50 players. The subtitle of ‘music for strings, percussion and viola” would not be totally inappropriate, as the concerto evokes Bartók’s work (celesta instead of viola). A one-movement composition anchored by lyrical passages at the work’s beginning and end exploring the rich low register of the viola, there are two cadenzas and shorter solo passages, and extensive sections of virtuoso passagework. The viola is often treated like a lower tessitura violin, and while this makes for spectacular pyrotechnics, one wishes that Penderecki had allowed for more exploration of the viola’s special character.

Nevertheless, Roberto Díaz got to demonstrate all aspects of his formidable technique and his musical insights, and acquitted himself brilliantly in front of his students. Christoph Eschenbach proved to be a very sensitive accompanist.

Conducting The Rite of Spring from memory, Eschenbach made full use of the Curtis musicians’ skill and enthusiasm. From the beautifully played opening bassoon solo, the lyricism and transparency of the opening section to the finishing triple forte chord, this was a deeply committed performance from everyone concerned, with almost as much physical engagement from the strings as one used to see with the Berlin Philharmonic. Except for the final ‘Danse sacrale’, which came across as somewhat static, there was an element of perfect raw, savage energy when required, without sacrificing precision: visceral playing and youthful enthusiasm at their very best.

Eschenbach seemed extremely pleased, giving many bows and acknowledgements to the orchestra before launching into a very fast Overture to Bernstein’s “Candide” as an encore.

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