As conductor Dan Allcott began his tenure with the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra on Saturday evening, I must confess to being a bit baffled. Allcott opened the concert with Mozart’s motet Ave Verum Corpus, K. 618. This work, in many ways, symbolizes Mozart as a whole—seemingly simple on the surface, but in actuality, harmonically complex. Even under the best of circumstances, this short, achingly beautiful work with its admittedly less-than-lively adagio tempo is probably not the most suitable work with which to begin a season, particularly following the rousing playing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” In this case, the rendering from the Oak Ridge Chorus was virtually passionless and a bit muddled in choral balance. As it ended, I admit to feeling anything but excited and optimistic for the season.
Thankfully, though, the remainder of the program changed my mind completely. Being a cellist himself, Allcott invited cellist Wesley Baldwin in for the Rainbow Concerto by the contemporary Dutch composer and media manipulator, Jacob ter Veldhuis. For the most part, ter Veldhuis has disavowed dissonance, at least in this work, yet he builds melody and rhythm in ways that are totally modern. Consisting of two movements, Slow Movement and Fast Movement, the work does seem to have an arc, although that may be in the ear and mind of the beholder…not that there is anything wrong with that.
Baldwin gave the slow movement an ethereal quality with some rather unearthly string effects softened with gentle warm tones. The fast movement returns to earth with complex rhythms and textures evocative of a somewhat chaotic, media-driven culture. In a way, Rainbow Concerto is the antithesis of Mozart—this is complex, yet satisfying, music that isn’t afraid to sound complex and get right in your face.
The second half of the program was devoted to Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D Major. Allcott gave the work a nicely balanced texture throughout with a firm musical point of view and unusually brisk and refreshing tempos. All sections were amazingly strong and tight for a first concert, but I was particularly impressed by the solidity of the brass. If there was anything missing in this otherwise admirable performance, it was the signature Romantic “breath” of Brahms—the subtle dynamic ebb and flow that surges and retreats with small crescendos and decrescendos, and in general, gives life and passion to the music.
All in all, a substantial start to the season.