An uneven performance by Symphony Syracuse

Review: Symphony Syracuse underwhelms Friday night at Crouse-Hinds Theater

If Symphony Syracuse has a mission to keep their music on the stage, their performance on Friday, Nov. 18 left listeners questioning their conviction. Much of the evening was boring, due in part to a disagreement in interest between the programmers and this reviewer, and, more importantly, to the lackluster playing and tatty rhythm. The technical issues are not new, but they’ve become more significant since the company's October concert and the recent opera pit performance.

What the symphony does well is more difficult to accomplish than what they do poorly. They blend well, producing a unified and beautiful tone. But just as you are enjoying a swelling phrase, the strings muddle the rhythm and cut off in different places. There were so many versions of dotted-rhythm passages throughout the evening that the correct one was indiscernible.

Weber’s Overture to Euryanthe welcomed listeners with bold, healthy sonorities, but the rhythmic imprecision in the violin section distracted quickly after. There was a soft, tender moment when only a small string ensemble played sweetly, and also a generous return to the opening theme. An exciting accelerando ended the overture.

Musicians and audience members were pleased to have Julia Pilant back to perform Mozart’s Horn Concert No. 3 in E-flat major, K. 447. Pilant played with the now defunct Syracuse Symphony Orchestra for 10 years before moving to New York City to play with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Accompanied by a small Mozartian ensemble, Pilant exhibited powerful control and a warm tone, accurately portraying the polite and cheeky character of Mozart. The ensemble, however, lacked forward motion and variance in character. 

Tempos were generally sluggish throughout the concert, notably in the Mozart piece. The lagging pace of the simple, rather uneventful piece, called to mind Jane Austen’s writing—a description of a day lived out internally without much event. Many people like that sort of thing, but I don’t care for it. This was simply a difference in taste and not a slight on Pilant’s playing.

Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique occupied the second half of the concert, but lacked the conventional program notes or any explanation from guest conductor, Heather Buchman. The program notes are an integral part of this piece—the very reason it’s so historically significant and widely known today—and without them, audience members were left to question why there were five movements, or why the oboe disappeared from stage during the first part of the third movement. 

The lack of program notes—written by the composer, diagramming the story being told in the music—is not so much an offensive disregard of tradition as it is a missed opportunity to show audiences how romantic music works. This piece is a gift to advocates of accessibility in classical music, and there was no return on the piece’s potential.

The first movement was promising, with more color and variation in character than previously shown.  Berlioz’s tendency to write melodies with ties over bar lines combined with slow tempo and dubious rhythm gave way to a snoozefest. Without the explanation of the idee fixe, there are only romantic colors to grasp.  There were moments of eloquence and beauty, but they were found mostly in the drawn-out chords of the phrase endings.

The second movement includes a prominent harp part that stimulated the ear and added depth before the waltz began. The flute’s iteration of the idee fixe was done with a particularly rich tone, but the ending of the movement was loose. The third movement was as unimpressionable as the first.

The final two movements proved themselves of a higher order than the first three. The high drama suited them, opening with a march featuring a bold brass section that carried the militant character of the narrative.  The fifth movement was appropriately creepy, with a deranged, mocking clarinet solo. These movements contained the fear and suspense written in the music, and though they were generally more interesting than the first three movements, the story was not accurately communicated since the first 60% was lethargic.

Hopefully this limp performance was a blip in the life of Symphony Syracuse. Their earlier performances this season were more invested and stimulating, and their problems with technique should be getting better, not worse.

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