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HRO Tackles Challenging Program with Striking Results

Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra at Sanders Theater February 28

By Matthew A. Carter

To begin a concert that was most remarkable for its many fine solos, the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra performed Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol," a piece that shows off every instrument in the ensemble. It is a virtuosic exploration of the possibilities inherent in its alborada theme, and not nearly as haphazardly composed as its title suggests. The Orchestra has never sounded better.

Concertmaster Salley Koo '97 led the other musicians with her clean and superbly projected performance. Principal clarinetist Michael Rescorla '96 and principal flautist Aimee Gallardo '98 followed suit, each tossing off a note-heavy solo part with flair. Beginning with the Capriccio's first cadenza, principal percussionist Mary Kissel '99 turned heads and made jaws drop with her superhuman ability to sustain a snare drum solo.

The total effect commanded attention as well. Under assistant conductor Channing Yu '93, the piece in its lusher moments evoked the fine string writing of Vaughan Williams. Yu has a knack for the Spanish dance idiom--one hopes that he will conduct Ravel's "Alborada del Gracioso" in the near future. The members of the orchestra were more than up to the task of the furious coda, never letting its fast tempo mar their phrasing.

Like his contemporary Chopin, Liszt was immeasurably better at writing for piano than for orchestra. In either of his two piano concertos, every part except the soloist's will seem like mere accompaniment. This was especially true in this performance of Liszt's second concerto, in A, where Yukiko Sekino '99, the winner of HRO's Concerto Competition, dwarfed her colleagues with her huge technique. Though her double notes left something to be desired (and whose don't?), her fearless and flawless octaves, the sine quibus non of Lisztian bravura, eradicated this quibble. A duet passage with principal cellist Steve Cho '97 was captivating, but the otherwise bland ensemble writing made it impossible for the orchestra to advertise itself. This is mostly Liszt's fault, but things would have improved if the others had played with even a fraction of Sekino's drive. Her music-making seemed to grow out of a deep understanding of earlier influences on the concerto's temperament: Liszt's Funerailles, "Paganini" Etudes and Piano Sonata in B Minor.

The focus of the concert was the local premiere of Boston University composer Charles Fussell's fifth symphony. In a preconcert lecture, Fussell said that the piece, written in a town of only 25 residents, owes something to the "spaciousness of Wyoming." Featuring an expanded percussion section, it made many rhythmic demands that the orchestra faced with mixed results. Of the piece's five themes, only two were as compelling as the other music on the program: an angular theme for strings and a long chorale that sounded best in the brass. Once again concertmaster Salley Koo was first-rate in her frequent solos, as were the winds when they inherited the string theme. Though the performance seemed shaky except for a cadenza-heightened, wonderfully careening climax, it was still convincing.

Neither the Fussell nor the concluding work, Richard Strauss's "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," matched the excellence of the Rimsky-Korsakov. Still, the imperfections of the orchestra's performance of the symphonic poem were technical, not conceptual. As Brent Auerbach '97 notes in the program, the piece often suggests the 14th-century folk hero Till "thumbing his nose" at the scholastic world and causing general mischief, two activities every Harvard student should have mastered by now. The oftenmuddy winds therefore did no permanent damage to the spirit of the music, and were canceled out (sometimes literally) by especially fine brass. Conductor James Yannatos coaxed playfully nuanced dynamics out of the orchestra and achieved another strong finish.

The concert was top-heavy in quality but satisfying throughout. Successful performances in this especially difficult program promise great music from HRO in its next major appearance at the Brahms Festival in April.

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