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MSO concludes season with style

March 17, 2003|by GARY MULLENAX

The Maryland Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Music Director Elizabeth Schulze, concluded its 2002-2003 season with a program featuring Chopin's Piano Concerto in F minor and one of the great symphonies of the 20th Century - Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5.

Esther Budiardjo, the 1996 William Kapell Competition winner, was the piano soloist in Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2. Her playing justifies the critical acclaim and awards she has garnered. Her rendition of the Chopin was authentic.

Whereas pianist-composers such as Liszt and Rachmaninoff achieved brilliance through thunderous chords and octaves, Chopin generally eschewed them. Slight in stature and often in frail health, he chose a more intimate approach. Accounts by those who heard Chopin play marveled at his ornamentation and light, feathery touch. Budiardjo and Schulze adhered to those principles in Saturday's performance - at no time did the music seem forced.

Budiardjo exhibited sensitivity and expressitivity throughout the opening movement. The florid scale passages flowed naturally and were silky smooth. The high point of the evening was the second movement. From the very first note of this lovely Larghetto, Budiardjo created and maintained an aura of magic. Her playing was heartfelt and mesmerizing. The descending passages cascaded down like meteor showers - subtle, yet shimmering in brilliance.


The final movement features the dance rhythm of the Polish mazurka, the spirit of which was eloquently captured by both soloist and orchestra. Budiardjo received a well-deserved standing ovation for her performance.

The programming of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony is timely as we cope with an unsettled future. The Fifth Symphony was composed in 1944 after the tide had turned against the Nazi regime. This masterpiece reminds us that we will face trials and tribulations, but the spirit of man will persevere.

In contrast to the Chopin, during which the orchestra served primarily as a backdrop for the piano, the Prokofiev piece is a technically demanding work. Frequent key changes, driving accented rhythms, biting dissonances and demands upon the instruments to play at the outer limits of their range make this a challenging symphony to undertake. Schulze successfully navigated the MSO through the Fifth's tricky passages.

The lyrical first movement theme is pastoral-like and here, the orchestra produced charming timbres. Melodic material that passed constantly between the sections always was clear.

The scherzo second movement features Prokofiev's perpetual motion rhythm, during which Schulze's dancing on the podium kept the orchestra light and loose. The violins produced a scintillating crescendo/decrescendo in the opening passage, which was taken up by other sections. Oriental colors were produced by the percussion. Pizzicato strings created a devious atmosphere in the middle section, while the brass refrained from being too sarcastic.

Prokofiev's final movement returns to the perpetual motion of the second movement. Constant changes of key provide tonal color. The winds adeptly handled wide melodic skips. Prokofiev's sarcasm was brought out by the brass and strings before the piece concluded with an exhilarating orchestral flourish.

With a few brief exceptions, the MSO's ensemble playing was tight.

Both pieces were given authentic interpretations that adhered to the composers' intentions. With Schulze as director, and fine musicians from the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area, the MSO has evolved into a quality regional orchestra that Hagerstown should treasure.

Gary Mullenax is on the faculty of the Department of Music and Theater at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

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