A large, highly charged and enthusiastic audience gave new Arkansas Symphony Orchestra director Philip Mann a standing ovation the moment he appeared on stage Saturday night.
It was apparent even before the concert began that a new era was at hand. The seating of the orchestra had been completely rearranged: The customary placement of the cellos to the right of the conductor was switched with the second violins (a fairly common change), and the seating of the brass, woodwinds and percussion were all new as well. A more energetic setting of the National Anthem also signaled the arrival of a new era. (Mann’s predecessor had used the hymn-like arrangement first used at the Greek Olympics.)
Mann’s debut program included Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to “Candide,” George Gershwin’s Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra, and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, subtitled “From the New World.”
The Bernstein was vigorously performed; the orchestra responded enthusiastically to the direction of its new leader. The instrument moves enhanced the sound as well. Kevin Cole, a renowned interpreter of Gershwin, gave a crowd-pleasing rendition of the Concerto in F, emphasizing the humor inherent in the score; and the orchestra, especially in the instrumental solos, showed a mastery of the jazz idiom.
The highlight of the program, however, was the Dvorak. “From the New World” is one of the warhorses of symphonic music. Yet Mann’s interpretation of it was as fresh as if he were giving it its first performance. The significant themes and motifs in every section stood out.
Mann conducted the familiar second movement up-tempo just enough to eliminate the dirge-like performance it often gets while maintaining its spiritual nature. The orchestra played throughout with the raw vigor that the piece demands. (It is a “ninth symphony,” after all.)
Mann’s baton technique reminds me of such conductors as Eugene Ormandy and Fritz Reiner; he has both their showmanship and musicianship. Arkansas is lucky to have his services. And the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra obviously enjoys working under his leadership.
— Edward Wooten