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Oct 21, 2002 - With the Reno Philharmonic playing well, is everything really swell backstage at the phil?
By Jack Neal
Under the impressive conductorial presence of Barry Jekowsky, the Reno Philharmonic's winter subscription concerts have been terrifically played nuggets from the heart of the symphonic repertory. That was the case once again Sunday afternoon (10/20/2002) as the orchestra launched its second series of this season's concerts.
During Jekowsky's tenure, the orchestra plays popular symphonic literature well, often brilliantly (although almost never during its slapdash summer concerts). It certainly played its program of Bernstein, Respighi, Barlow and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9 with the impeccably fine pianist Angela Hewitt, wonderfully well Sunday afternoon.
The question is, to borrow from Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is?" The orchestra and its conductor could be stuck in a conductorial mid-tenure crisis that could begin to play out in what concertgoers hear. Just playing the popular classics well, isn't all there is.
Recent news out of Berlin, where Simon Rattle has taken over as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, indicates Rattle refused to sign his contract until the Berlin Phil management had been made into a private foundation (as opposed to a government one) and until the players' salaries were raised. The emphasis here should be placed on "and until the players' salaries were raised."
News seeping out from backstage at the Reno Philharmonic indicates discontent with the huge amount of money its out-of-town conductor makes (well into six figures) and the paltry sum its home-town players make (on the low side of four figures). Players who reject union assistance often get what they have not been willing to pay for - little. Has Jekowsky done as much as he should to nurture orchestral personnel, the real heartbeat of an orchestra? While terribly important, conductors don't make the sounds that nurture the crowds that pay the bills. Have the musicians done what they should do? Which leads us to the curiosity of someone in the orchestra circulating a petition to bring Jekowsky's tenure in Reno to a more rapid close than the natural conclusion of his contract.
One way to mute criticism, of course, is to give critics something to do. Could that be the reasoning behind featuring the orchestra's principal oboist Andrea Lenz on Wayne Barlow's lyric Rhapsody for Oboe? One can't talk while playing. But one certainly can play and that's something Andrea Lenz does beautifully. It is possible for maestro and orchestra to make beautiful music together, even if everything isn't beautiful backstage at the Reno Phil.
As Andrea Lenz waxed rhapsodic playing the Barlow, the superb Angela Hewitt was equally rhapsodic playing the Mozart. Mozart's light and glittering ninth concerto was a personal favorite of the composer's. Virtuosic and bold, it's a perfect work for the enviable talents of Miss Hewitt. Her virtuosity dazzles, but it's her inner sense of balance and speaking within phrases without stretching them beyond classic shapes, then fusing the entire work into one of an incandescent beauty that's at the heart of the pianist's sublime artistry. Hewitt's playing is a series of electrifying epiphanies molded into one marvelous revelation.
Marvelous revelations play a major role in Jekowsky's presentations here. His "West Side Story" Symphonic Dances had all the hell-for-leather verve Lennie himself might have brought to his beloved score. It's hard to imagine a more theatrical, if somewhat thick, reading of this highly theatrical music.
Theatrical, too, is Jekowsky's take on Respighi's richly orchestrated "The Pines of Rome." With some fantastic playing from the horns in the opening section, "The Pines of the Villa Borghese," a mesmerizingly hallucinatory muted trumpet (Paul Lenz) in "The Pines Near a Catacomb," and a haunting, extended clarinet line (David Ehrke) in "The Pines of the Janiculum," the storytelling of the Respighi's first three movements was, under Jekowsky's spell and the orchestra's excellent playing, filled with imagery and energy.
During the Respighi's powerhouse close, the Roman legions march up the Capitoline Hill under the weight of body armor with a burnished massiveness from the brasses that's breathtaking. Jekowsky's habit of dissecting works, discovering unsuspected beauties, then molding parts together into one big epic statement is a talent worth hanging on to.
Controversy can produce exciting performances. What the Reno Philharmonic needs to do before excitement turns sour is address upsetting issues before they damage artistic ones. For the good of the orchestra, the bridge between caution and courage needs to be crossed - and quickly.
The concert will be repeated Tuesday, October 22, 2002, at 7:30 p.m. at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts, 100 South Virginia Street, Reno. The Reno Philharmonic's next series of concerts will be November 17 and 19, 2002, and will feature Haydn, Mendelssohn and the Puts Marimba Concerto with marimbist Makoto Nakura. For information call 775-323-6393.
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