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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