There’s music that has become ubiquitous, breaking all kinds of boundaries. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is an example. Today you can hear the gleeful ritornellos of the opening movement of the ‘Spring,’ or the stormy minor-key theme of the ‘Winter,’ in arrangements and in places that extend from hard-rock shred guitar, to cheese MIDI tunes coming from the phone in your cubicle at work, right after the accounts payable clerk puts you on hold. That’s not always a good thing, but it certainly speaks for the longevity and transnational impact that some music has been able to achieve.
The reason Saturday evening’s Orlando Philharmonic performance, presented by the Celebration Foundation, was good was because it was fresh. The reason it was fresh was because it was conducted by a twenty-first century musician who will not let the symphony orchestra – whichever he happens to be conducting – be demoted to a museum for things of the past, in danger of succumbing to extinction in today’s fast-paced, ROI-obsessed society.
The name is Eric Jacobsen, one of the five finalists for the orchestra’s music director position. The cello player/conductor is involved in several multicultural, genre-defying, crossover ensembles and projects, including the orchestra The Knights, which he conducts, the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.
I will shy away from a thorough rundown of his résumé, and focus instead on his performance with the Phil at the Celebration Community Presbyterian Church, which highlighted Rimma Bergeron-Langlois as soloist. Hailing from Ukraine, the Orlando Phil concertmaster has been a strong presence in the orchestra since assuming her position a few years ago.
One of the fun things about the Four Seasons is that it has the soloist join the string ensemble during certain episodes, to smoothly emerge in between ritornellos – or riffs, if you will, played by the ensemble – developing the material through each movement of Vivaldi’s carefully thought-out musical architecture. Bergeron-Langlois performed with spark and youthful zest, even when supported by glances at sheet music. She was most dazzling during the rapid-fire solo of the first movement of the ‘Spring,’ before the minor-key iteration of the main theme in E, and during the third movement of the ‘Summer.’ With a presto tempo indication, it is the fastest music of the whole piece, and includes flying string flourishes that are echoed by the ensemble and demand some serious finger work.
The soloist also showed sensitivity during the slower movements, and worked in tandem with Associate Concertmaster Joni Hanze-Bjella and Principal Viola Mauricio Cespedes, the latter providing a wistful but steady tone and balancing the rich tone of the string orchestra between violins and basses.
Jacobsen, a lanky young man with jet-black curls, is a very expressive conductor. For the opening number – contemporary Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov’s The Last Round, an homage to tango sensation Astor Piazzolla – his body jolted to demarcate the composer’s rough textures, and used sweeping motions to indicate long and slow glissandos.
One of the most fun pieces the Orlando Phil has performed in recent years, The Last Round – it exists in string quartet and string orchestra versions – has two distinct sections of different tempo. While the opening section is an upbeat tango-infused wildfire – complete with percussive bowing effects, glissandos that imitate the bandoneon (the accordion-like characteristic instrument of tango) and Piazzolla’s signature squeals – the second slows down to reflect on the life and work of a remarkable composer, a visionary who reinvented tango and turned it into a genre worthy of artistic esteem.
His conducting style changed, obviously and necessarily, for the Vivaldi; the piece calls for gentler phrasing and a keen ear for soloist/ensemble interplay. It does feature, however, the distinctive terraced dynamics of the Baroque period, where degrees of loudness jerk to the opposite extreme, but with a subtle degree of control. Jacobsen marked these, throughout the Four Seasons, by flexing his knees to come down a bit, to which the music followed suit.
If only a stronger piece had been chosen to wrap up, this would have been a remarkable string orchestra concert. There’s nothing wrong with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C – it was even performed with the same musicality and qualities that made the Golijov and Vivaldi successful – it’s just that, as far the program itself is concerned, it collapses under the weight of what preceded it. Casual classical listeners will recognize the famous waltz in the second movement – ear candy of the treacliest kind, pulled right out the ‘light classical’ playlist.
I feel that the program needed another contemporary or twentieth century piece for string orchestra to bookend the Vivaldi, maybe Stravinsky’s amazing Concerto in D, or Arthur Honegger’s Symphony No. 2, or something of the like, which would have suited the talents of Jacobsen and his chemistry with the orchestra.
Jacobsen is a strong candidate for the music director position; he will lead the full Orlando Philharmonic (with woodwinds, brass, and percussion) at the Bob Carr on January 10, something not to be missed.
In the meantime, check out the Four Seasons concert tomorrow – Monday, December 15 – at the Plaza Theater.
To visit the Phil’s website and order tickets, click here.
To read recent Orlando Philharmonic and other Orlando-based classical music concerts, click here.