Mendelssohn, Varga, Almond — Soul Mates
Guest conductor Gilbert Varga and violinist Frank Almond bring four Mendelssohn works to full bloom.
Warmth, precision and clarity permeate both Mendelssohn’s best music and the conducting of Gilbert Varga.
Varga, like Mendelssohn, is expressive but not overwrought, Romantic in spirit but balanced in structure, and unaffected and graceful in gesture. Varga, a conducting minimalist, makes every move count. I admire the way, after he has set the orchestra or a section on its glide path, he dropped his hands to his sides and lets the orchestra descend naturally to the runway. When there’s really nothing to do, he does nothing but listen and smile, and perhaps nod or sway. That builds trust.
When he does raise his hands, the orchestra knows that he does so with clear purpose. Even more than usual, the players’ eyes were up. Varga is so easy to read. His hands draw the feel of the music in the air, from the murmuring sea of accompaniment of Fingal’s Cave and the sonic equivalent of moonlight glimmering through the forest canopy in the Midsummer nocturne to the wild abandon of the Italian dances in the Symphony No. 4 finale. His impeccable technique makes every cue and articulation specific, with the result of superb ensemble, clean-cut rhythm and a world of fine shadings of tempo, dynamics, weight, attack and release.
The sum of such technicalities make the music specific in its sentiment and momentum at any given moment, and those specifics add up to compelling long-term arcs. In Varga’s hands, Mendelssohn’s music takes on more and more meaning and becomes more and more compelling as it unfolds.
Frank Almond, the orchestra’s concertmaster and on this occasion its violin soloist, harmonized perfectly with Varga and Mendelssohn. Like Varga, Almond let no music pass casually; he invested in every note and phrase and brought out their full and specific characters.
Almond’s playing is all about singing beauty, and this concerto gave him ample opportunity to sing. He did, in generous, deep-breathing phrases. He made a soaring song of the opening theme, which culminated in a thrilling, floated high pianissimo just before the second theme entered. Almond went for noble dignity, as opposed to Romantic pathos, with the lyrical theme of the second movement, and made a dreamy barcarole of the middle section. The finale was a horse race, a sprint in the first theme and bounding steeplechase in the second. The speed and energy came without a hint of stress or strain, as an athletic celebration of the joy of life.
This program, the MSO’s season opener, took place in Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Varga, Almond and the orchestra will repeat it at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15-16. For tickets, call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206, or visit the MSO website.