Reviews ...

Gunther Schuller Conducts Melrose Symphony Orchestra

... at 82, the MSO is still the heart of Melrose's cultural life

Jackie Wattenberg

Gunther Schuller, who has led major orchestras throughout the world, was on the stage in Memorial Hall last Saturday evening to lift his baton to our Melrose Symphony Orchestra. Our regular conductor, Yoichi Udagawa, who just returned from a conducting tour in Japan, led his musicians in the traditional rendition of our national anthem, then introduced Maestro Schuller, "My musical mentor and guru!"

Then he told the audience that the night's guest soloist was to be the Boston Symphony's principal bassoonist, Richard Svoboda: applause at such a prestigious guest performer. Next he stated that Mr. Svoboda was a Melrose resident, an even greater outpouring of applause! Melrose is nothing if not proud of its own.

It was hard to spot an empty seat in Memorial Hall, with word of the famed conductor and esteemed soloist bringing a record throng who proved their appreciation by several standing ovations. In its 82nd year, this cultural institution has a devoted following.

Maestro Schuller, tall and sturdy, without a tinge of pretension, took command of the players with no obvious compromise or condescension, but demanding their best. He began with Beethoven's "Prometheus Overture," keeping up a lively pace throughout. His approach was assured and unhesitating, simple gestures calling forth the sections to respond brightly; the woodwinds responded nicely.

The bassoon is not a frequent solo instrument, well behind the piano, violin, and cello, and the flute. With a smaller output of works for the bassoon by the masters, the occasion for this instrument to shine is rarer. But Saturday night's audience reaction demonstrated how much appeal it can muster when played as expertly as Mr. Svoboda performed for us. His first piece, Elgar's "Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra," was a lovely little work which the bassoonist indeed made romantic, his mellifluous tones expressing the mood of lyric gentleness.

Then came the Mozart Bassoon Concerto, with rarely a restful minute. The fluidity of Mr. Svoboda's tones rose to shimmering high notes, dipped with ease and elegance to the instrument's reedy depths, and kept up a rapid span of runs and trills, executed with unflagging breath control and deft intonation. With his musical phrasing, he made the instrument a creator of rich chiaroscuro.

Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "New World," occupied the last half of the program. So popular it has become a sort of war-horse, it contains lovely melodies, and Schuller made the most of them as well as some rousing climaxes he stirred from the orchestra. His concept of this oft-played work seemed sympathetic to the simple, earthy warmth of the symphony, which was written during Dvorak's stay in this country, and to project its occasional darker undercurrents.

The orchestra often rose to the knowing hand of the conductor, with many good solo moments including clarinet phrases by Richard Svoboda's talented high school daughter, Erin. The upper strings performed surprisingly well on some emphatic sections, while struggling on others.

At 82, the MSO is still the heart of Melrose's cultural life, and still growing.

Previously published in the Melrose Free Press on Nov. 25, 1999 and reprinted here with their permission.

December 3, 1999

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