South Florida Classical Review (11.03.2009)

Estonian orchestra a distinct success with help from young pianist
By Alan Becker

Founded 81 years ago, but now making its first North American tour, the Estonian National Symphony made an appearance Monday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Nikolai Alexeev conducted a program that included a piece by the noted Estonian Arvo Part along with some well-worn favorites.

Most readers will wonder if the orchestra is different from most symphonic ensembles we are familiar with. The answer is a definite yes. The Estonians do not sound like what we are used to, do not act like what we are used to, but have a special excellence all their own. The standard of discipline is high and so is the protocol. There is no warm-up orchestral din onstage preceding the concert. The Estonians enter together and seat themselves quietly to await the arrival of the conductor. The concertmaster makes no grand entrance and receives no separate applause. When the conductor arrives all players stand to honor him. Of special note is the large number of women in the orchestra, all of them attractively slim and trim.

In Part’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten , and the other works, bowing is unified, apparently decided early on. It makes for a more intense and less silken string tone then most major orchestras. It also provides a uniquely distinctive sound, setting them slightly apart from what we’re used to. Part’s 1977 piece is most beautiful, sort of a reverse minimalism in which an extended string threnody is set against the ever-present tolling of a bell. The work, only five minutes in duration, takes the Renaissance form of a mensuration canon several steps beyond and creates a piece of great sadness. It was devastatingly performed, just as it should be.

The young Korean pianist Joyce Yang was born in 1986 and gained international renown when she was awarded the silver medal at the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Her performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 set her apart from the crowd in its emphasis not only on the percussive elements of the score, but on its lyricism as well. After the opening clarinet solo, conductor Alexeev whipped the orchestra into a frenzy of speed and dynamics that was easily matched by his soloist. Although slight in appearance, Yang uses her entire body to thrust forward all the rhythmic intricacies and powerful forte attacks required. When release does occur, as in the Andantino’s variations, her ability to coax the most delicately shaded sonorities from the keyboard was amazing. The orchestra, and its wonderfully thick and reedy woodwinds, caught details mostly lost by other groups. For this we must praise Alexeev, and his superb control-extending even to the molding of phrases from his fingertips.

Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 has seen many performances over the years, and bringing something new to the music is not an easy task. Alexeev and his group may have whipped up the tempos sufficiently to raise a few eyebrows, but what excitement they created. With ample opportunity for those winds to shine, the music sounded just right, and reminded one of just what has been missing from all those other performances.

With the hall less than half full, there was much cause to lament the demise of the Concert Association of Florida, and there were many angry subscribers Monday asking for a refund on the remaining canceled concerts.