Walter Waugaman
Posted on Sat, Jan. 30, 2010

Maestro mines players' trust
By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Classical Music Critic
In an era that seems to confuse balletics and bouncing locks with conducting skills, you might not pick out Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos as the podium presence most likely to set an audience on fire.
He has an efficient, businesslike stage persona. His gestures are no more elaborate than necessary. His most important conveyance of ideas, if a program Thursday night with the Philadelphia Orchestra was a fair guide, takes place in rehearsal.
But he is exactly the kind of authority figure to put this orchestra on its mettle, and, to an enormously gratifying extent, his vivid artistic statements were acutely felt by a nearly sold-out audience that gave him a genuine, spontaneous standing ovation. His initial response was to merely look pleased, but, sweetly and modestly, he came out for more curtain calls with clear joy spreading across his face.
Frühbeck, 76, has become an important part of the orchestra's health regimen. The Spaniard is one of a small handful of visiting conductors who raise ensemble standards. He also tends to bring works in which he has singular credibility, which for this program meant his own orchestration of Turina's Theme and Variations, Op. 100, for harp and piano. Played with nuanced expressiveness and a rich palette of colors by principal harpist Elizabeth Hainen and the orchestra's strings, the piece came across as, if not important, terrifically charming.
The stunner of the evening, though, were 11 excerpts from El amor brujo (Love, the Magician), Manuel de Falla's gypsy ballet-opera. The storytelling aspects of the music are hard to discern (even in versions that include the soprano and mezzo-soprano parts), but Frühbeck's meticulous preparation rendered the piece an abstract beauty. He has an ease and confidence - a rightness, but one endowed with deep expressiveness - that, among other things, gave Yumi Kendall's cello solo the space to bloom. His "Ritual Fire Dance" was revelatory - not the unhinged outburst that it has become in pops concerts, but something more subtle and sensuous.
These two works, with Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 and the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1, formed an odd programmatic jumble - it is Falla's The Three Cornered Hat, after all, that has the sly quote from Beethoven's Fifth - but something about the variety suggested emotional balance. Principal cellist Hai-Ye Ni was soloist in the Saint-Saëns, and if she didn't radiate charisma, she was a careful player with a solid and pleasing tone.
The Beethoven bore more than enough of a personal stamp to justify its appearance yet one more time, and it had the added benefit of the orchestra mining dynamic contrasts for layered drama. Again, here was an orchestra handing over its trust to a conductor so fully that players, the wind principals in particular, could take expressive chances that paid off in great individuality.

Posted on Sat, Feb. 6, 2010

Conductor Frühbeck delights
By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Classical Music Critic
Very clever, Maestro.
Guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos assembled just the kind of feel-good concert that audiences need during the dead of winter - with a value-added surprise. On Thursday's start of his second week with the Philadelphia Orchestra, he paired two graphic pieces of musical storytelling, Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream incidental music and Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade, and not until the end did you realize the wind writing that begins Mendelssohn's overture is a close cousin (in instrumentation, manner, and chord voicings) to that which ends Sheherazade.
Symphonic programs are rarely bookended so neatly. A coincidence? Not with a conductor as accomplished, cultivated, and seasoned as the 76-year-old Frühbeck.
He always draws stylishly played, coloristically attuned performances in interpretations that aren't markedly original but allow fresh experience. His current visit, however, seems to be on a higher level than before. Also, his relatively recent Bruckner Symphony No. 3 with the Dresden Philharmonic is one of the best in that repertoire. Wolfgang Sawallisch's Indian summer happened about the same age; Frühbeck seems to be in more vigorous health.
The Mendelssohn was its light, fun self with two seldom-played numbers from the incidental music score that recap previous themes in curious, haphazard ways. The Philadelphia Singers Chorale was appropriately fairylike. Frühbeck's Sheherazade hit the seldom-reached Stokowski standard. Though nobody beats conductor Myung-Whun Chung for specificity of storytelling in this evocation of the legend of a woman who spins tales to stave off execution, Frühbeck always found narrative-rooted reasons for the music's thematic repetition (one of its weak points). He was unafraid to conjure some high-Hollywood moments of string-tone lushness, but did so sparingly and thrillingly. Unlike Charles Dutoit, whose Rimsky phrasing can be suave bordering on fey, Frühbeck seems not to love artifice. I'm with him; I like Sheherazade unfiltered.
Incidental solos were full of personality. Concertmaster David Kim smartly varied his vibrato, using almost none near the end as if to convey the storyteller's exhaustion, and enjoyed a chamber-music-like rapport with harpist Margarita Csonka Montanaro. Hornist Jennifer Montone's foreground/background spatial effects were especially piquant. Oboist Richard Woodhams had a wonderful question-and-answer quality to his phrasing. Daniel Matsukawa's rich tone suggested there's a trombone hidden inside his bassoon. As of yesterday afternoon, tonight's performance was announced as going on as scheduled. Good. The public needs this.
Posted on 7 Feb 2010, 3:06 AM