June 7, Hot Springs Field House
The Hot Springs Music Festival Symphony Orchestra, made up of professionals and students, gave the first of the four concerts it will give during the two-week festival this year June 7 at the Hot Springs Field House. Peter Bay is principal conductor for the season.
The students include talented apprentices on scholarship who work side by side with mentors during the two-week festival. Most mentors didn’t appear to be significantly older than their apprentices, but in any event the ensemble is composed of uniformly good players.
Regrettably, there were almost as many musicians as audience members; a pity, since the tab is only $15 per concert, with student tickets only $5. The orchestra is also sorely in need of a more suitable venue. I think the hall’s acoustics may be responsible for many of my criticisms.
The group played in with the “Bacchanale” from Saint-Saens’ “Sampson and Delilah” in an overly loud and exuberant rendition. The balance between the instruments left much to be desired, the brass overwhelming the other instruments and sounding harsh rather than sensuous.
The featured work was Liszt’s First Piano Concerto with Michael Gurst as soloist. The concerto is one of the most melodramatic pieces in piano literature and Gurst was appropriately flamboyant and dramatic. Especially during the breakneck finale, however, reverberation in the hall conspired to make notes indistinguishable one from another.
After intermission came Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, a work composed at the height of World War II. There is some disagreement among scholars about Prokofiev’s intent. Is it a sop to Soviet orthodoxy or work of personal rebellion? Bay’s no-nonsense, keep-the-beat baton did not reveal which side of the argument he came down on. The symphony, especially in the first movement, is a grand workout for the brass and percussion. Once again, their sound overwhelmed the less virile instruments. There was also a bit of roughness when the woodwinds get to shine at the beginning of the third movement, but then, almost miraculously, the whole thing came together in an evocation of the agony of war, bringing the concert to a most satisfying conclusion.
Sunday, I returned to hear the symphony along with the festival chorus in Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” under guest conductor Michael Morgan. The orchestra was much better balanced than in the earlier concert and was at times brilliant, especially in the sections in which the prophets of Baal seek to bring fire down and in which Elijah is lifted up. The diction of the vocal ensemble, however, needed much work. I could barely understand the words even with the text in front of me, the exception being the a capella choir of angels, which sings briefly in Part 2. Morgan conducted authoritatively, however, and the evening overall was well worth the trip.
There are festival events nightly at various venues. The orchestra’s final concert is Saturday at 7:30, with more Liszt. “Les Preludes” contains most of the bridge cues from the old “Lone Ranger” radio show. Should be fun.
— Edward Wooten