Bohemian Big Country


Santa Barbara Symphony presentation, conducted by Gisèle Ben-Dor, with Robert Thies, piano. At the Arlington Theatre, Saturday, March 18.

From the first muted strains of The Swan of Tuonela, the rich, smooth sound of the Santa Barbara Symphony proclaimed that Maestra Ben-Dor was in command. In terms of playing together as an orchestra, the symphony has never sounded better. I did not hear a single faltering of any musician throughout the whole evening. Perhaps because it is so brief, and came first, the Sibelius impressed the most. Maestra Ben-Dor moved the English horn player, Sarah Beck, up to the front of the orchestra, and the piece became a mini-concerto. It was all mood and atmosphere, scarcely more than a sketch, but Beck’s exquisite playing and the symphony’s burnished glow made a magical interlude of the piece.

The only piece that Ben-Dor felt needed an introduction was the Variations on a Nursery Song, by Ernő von Dohnányi — “since I am convinced that most of you have never heard it.” We have all heard the theme, however — we know it as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Dohnányi’s Variations on it are sometimes deliberately pompous, sometimes genuinely moving, and always perfectly musical — no rude noises for this crew. The pianist, Robert Thies, played it straight, and very beautifully. Ben-Dor offered the work as an example of humor in music, but the only real joke was in the contrast between the solemnly portentous opening and the child-like simplicity of the first statement of the theme.

After the intermission, Ben-Dor led the symphony in a rousing and fascinating performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.” Ben-Dor seemed determined to keep the sprawling episodic work together as a whole. I have never heard it that way — unless you count thinking of it as a pie starting out as one whole thing, but where each bite offers a different flavor.

Dvořák claimed that he used no preexisting American themes in the work, and one can sort of see what he meant. But the music evokes this continent, not Europe. If he made the tunes up, then he invented more than just a symphony, he played a big part in shaping how we see ourselves. Jerome Moross didn’t start from scratch when he wrote his stunning score for The Big Country, he started from this symphony.

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