Review -‘French bon-bon’ program a tasty treat for the audience

By Jay Furst

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

The Rochester Symphony Orchestra concert Saturday at Mayo Civic Center was promoted as a package of "French bon-bons" — and the chocolates at intermission were much appreciated — but the evening was a lot more nutritious than that.

Ranging from Ferdinand Herold’s fizzy, Rossinian overture to "Zampa" to Ravel’s shimmering and sensual music from "Daphnis et Chloe," this program challenged both orchestra and audience. The all-French program, chosen with customary good taste by music director Jere Lantz, also featured three pieces with strong solo turns and a dash of choral music as well.

The Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No. 1, with Minnesota Orchestra principal cellist Anthony Ross, was remarkable for its gossamer textures and Ross’ rich, emotive yet elegant playing. The movements are played without pause, and both conductor and soloist crafted a performance of intensely romantic lyricism as well as dramatic logic and shape. Ross, who has been the Minnesota Orchestra’s first chair cello for 17 years, had ample opportunities to show off his technique in the Saint-Saens piece, from the almost inaudibly high notes where he basically ran out of frets, to rapid dance-like roulades.


His rendering of the Faure "Elegie" for cello and orchestra, which preceded the concerto, was appropriately stark and brooding, though the final, drawn-out tone had an almost unpleasant wiry quality — and it was hard to ignore the dull rumble of the heating system in Presentation Hall at that moment.

Lantz and company were more than up to the task of Ravel’s Suite No. 2 from "Daphnis et Chloe," which calls out every available orchestral color, plus choral chanting as well. Ravel’s landmark ballet premiered in 1912, a year before Stravinsky’s more revolutionary "Sacre du Printemps," and in some ways it’s a comparably atavistic hymn to the earth and to the Greek myth on which it’s based. But Ravel’s purpose was always to produce music of sheer, ethereal beauty, and the orchestra captured that Saturday night.

The stage was barely big enough to accommodate the full orchestra and chorale, but all sections were heard to superb and balanced effect.

The most bon-bony item on the program was Ravel’s petite "Introduction and Allegro" for harp, flute, clarinet and strings, a delicious little sample of perfectly French music. Orchestra players Elinor Niemisto, Kay Sahlin and David Townsend were excellent on harp, flute and clarinet, and Lantz’s introductory comments from the stage are an example of exactly what maestros need to do to make their concerts more engaging and entertaining for new audiences.

Next up for the orchestra and chorale: the annual holiday extravaganza, with two performances on Dec. 20.

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