by Jeff Grove
The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra may have jumped the gun a little with its 60th anniversary concert on Saturday, Jan. 9 (the orchestra having debuted on March 8, 1950) but when it comes to a diamond jubilee, what do a couple of months matter?
The capacity crowd that filled the Jacoby Symphony Hall at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts to celebrate six decades of music-making glittered with local personalities, including Mayor John Peyton. Many patrons opted for full evening dress, scattering the lobby with men in tuxedos and women in flowing gowns. At one end of the concourse, a five-foot ice sculpture featured the JSO’s anniversary logo, and tempting items were up for bid in a silent auction.
The orchestra has come a long way from the days when it played such venues as hotel ballrooms and the National Guard Armory. Its programming has settled into greater focus, as well. That first concert 60 years ago featured works by Frescobaldi, Dvorak, Gretry, Weber, Herbert, Weinberger, and Wagner – a veritable United Nations of musical styles. For the anniversary gala, Mechetti led a concentrated program of Russian and German pieces whose allure was enhanced by the presence of internationally renowned guest violinist Itzhak Perlman.
Kicking off the concert with elan, Mechetti conducted a bustling – but never simply busy – performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s aptly titled Festive Overture.
The overture gives each of an orchestra’s sections chances to shine, and the JSO took full advantage of that. The brass and lower strings offered luxurious textures at the beginning, then cleanly focused woodwinds cut through with almost surgical precision. Balances might have favored the brass over the upper strings at first, but the violins and violas soon redressed the matter and asserted themselves to fine effect. Mechetti guided the orchestra through a wide range of volume, and kept the piece energetic without sounding frenetic. In a work that can easily fall apart if the players allow speed to trump control, the JSO gave a textbook definition of the term “ensemble.”
More Russian music followed by way of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, nicknamed the “Little Russian” Symphony for its use of several Ukrainian folk tunes.
Tchaikovsky opens the first movement of his symphony with a beautiful, melancholy line for solo French horn, which Kevin Reid delivered in a heartfelt manner with good tone and phrasing. The bassoon picks up the horn’s melody, and here Christopher Sales proved Reid’s equal, adding a plangency that built the movement’s emotions. The middle part of the movement holds some rhythmic challenges that Mechetti and the orchestra handled with skill, and Mechetti shaped the entire movement nicely as it returned to its opening theme, ending with a sort of musical question mark that looked forward to the second movement.
That section of the symphony, a jaunty little march, was notable in this performance for smooth shifts when the main melody jumped from one section of the orchestra to another, as well as for the warmth of the cellos and the sweetness of the violins.
The brief third movement can be treacherous, as it hurls its melodies at a very fast tempo while pitting different groups of instruments against each other’s rhythms. It held no terrors for Mechetti and the orchestra, however, their precision and energy maintaining control without sounding mechanical.
The symphony’s finale begins with a grand statement from the full orchestra, and here it emerged with impressive power and grandeur. Soon, though, the music takes off like the wind, and leads the orchestra through an obstacle course that the JSO’s musicians made very exciting. Violins playing low in their range supported their tone fully and evenly. A contrasting theme in the middle of the movement was played with charm, and an ensuing section with sudden shifts between very loud and very soft passages building to the conclusion found the JSO fully equal to the challenge.
For many people in the audience, the main event came after intermission, when the world renowned violinist Perlman took the stage for Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major. The audience, not even waiting for the performance, accorded Perlman’s mere entrance a standing ovation – the mark of a true star.
Beethoven’s concerto opens with an unsettling contrast in which a hymn-like passage alternates with a motif that suggests a more nervous energy seeking release, and the orchestra deftly characterized both themes, capitalizing on their conflict. Perlman made the most of what might be called a “stealth entrance,” his tone full and his intonation true even on the highest notes. The concerto’s first movement, which amounts to fully half of the concerto’s playing time, is tricky for the soloist, its melodies so decorated with musical frills and arabesques that it could easily seem to be meandering without purpose, but Perlman phrased his lines with an unfailing understanding of just which notes to emphasize so that the almost hidden tunes could be followed.
At the beginning of the second movement, the violinist is joined by a lone clarinet, and Peter Wright shaped his part of that duet beautifully. Repeatedly during this movement, Beethoven’s score specifically directs the violinist to play dolce – sweetly – and, for the most part, softly. Perlman honored those injunctions, but also found passion and intensity in those quiet moments.
The finale lopes along in a rollicking fashion, and Perlman maximized the contrast between this movement and the previous one. Bursting with high spirits, his playing retained polish and style, as well, and the orchestra backed him up in strong partnership.
Another standing ovation ensued, and after Perlman left the stage, the audience called him back twice more to make sure he knew how much they had enjoyed the performance. No encore was offered, but no complaints were heard about that as the audience filed out into the icy night: Perlman – and Mechetti and the orchestra – had given us enough in the announced program to warm our spirits all the way home.