While efforts to "enhance the experience" of listening to an orchestral concert are laudable and often quite effective, sometimes all one wants is to hear good music well-played.
That is what the Signature Symphony at Tulsa Community College offered Saturday night at the VanTrease PACE, with an evening devoted to the music of Felix Mendelssohn.
The orchestra, under the direction of principal guest conductor Piotr Sulkowski, sounded focused and forceful for much of the night - only a stray errant note here, a missed cue there to mar the music's well-polished surface.
Sulkowski combines intensity and elegance in his conducting. He's not an overly theatrical conductor, but he leaves no doubt as to what sound he wants from the orchestra.
He's also a very mobile presence on the podium, at one point even stepping down to stride up to the violin section, bringing them back into line with a few brisk, pointed gestures when it sounded as if the section's unity of purpose was beginning to disintegrate.
One of Mendelssohn's strengths as a composer is his ability to conjure up an atmosphere through sound, as in "The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave)," which opened the concert. The orchestra gave a richly colored performance, with Sulkowski guiding the players with a deft hand through the surging and ebbing dynamics of the piece.
The program listed Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto as following "The Hebrides," but Sulkowski chose to have the Symphony No. 5, the "Reformation," come before the intermission.
The "Reformation" symphony is actually Mendelssohn's second such work - it would not be published until two decades after the composer's death. Mendelssohn once referred to the symphony as a work of "juvenilia," perhaps more a reflection of his own perfection than the short-comings of the music.
While this was the piece that challenged the orchestra most, the performance had much to enjoy: the churning, disquieting tone of the first movement, the almost bouncy, festival air to the second movement; the way in the final movement that the simple hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" developed from a lone melody from principal flutist Dana Higbee into a triumphant shout.
Even more triumphant was the performance by violinist Bella Hristova of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto.
This is one of the most popular and performed works of its type, and it was clear from her first note that Hristova's performance was informed by a sharp intelligence as much by a formidable technique.
The way Hristova crafted each phrase, so that the entirety of the violin part seemed to be all of a piece, showed how deeply she has thought about this work.
The robust, often piercing sound she drew from her Niccolo Amati violin had a distinctive, voice-like tone, whether she was ripping through passages at breakneck speed or caressing one of the more contemplative melodies of the second movement.
Hristova returned for an encore, performing what she called "a traditional Bulgarian dance," that was in fact a real display of knuckle-cracking virtuosity.
James D. Watts Jr 918-581-8478
Original Print Headline: An evening of Mendelssohn, well-played