Friday, February 14, 2014

Lively orchestral breezes from Brazil's Bahia blow into the Palladium

By the time 21-year-old student conductor Yuri Azevedo bounded onstage at the Palladium Thursday to lead his Bahia Orchestra Project colleagues in three encores, the center of musical energy had long since passed from standard repertoire into music reflective of the characteristic rhythms and melodies of Latin America.

The printed program had concluded with two movements from "Bachianas Brasileiras" No. 4, by the chief Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Arturo Marquez's shining tribute to his Cuban homeland's "danzon" rhythm, "Danzon No. 2." That primed the pump for the exuberance to follow.

And there was choreography — standing, swaying, dancing — to match the high spirits in performances of such pieces as the "Mambo" from Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" and the pop standard "Brazil," made famous by Frank Sinatra. The performances were a little loose in terms of precision, but electrifying in the sharpness of their accents and their irresistible momentum.

Ricardo Castro, founder-director of  Bahia Orchestra Project
At the top of an organization modeled on Venezuela's El Sistema, the Bahia ensemble took the stage at 100 strong, conducted (until the encores) by its founder and artistic director, Ricardo Castro. Their calling card to a somewhat sparse audience didn't distance them much from their main strengths, however: Youthful passion and conflict (Bahia age range: 12 to 28) are memorably focused in Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture."

Castro elicited from the large ensemble the crucial atmosphere of foreboding in the opening pages of the score. The love theme introduced by English horn and the violas was taken quite slowly, its lush overflow of feelings well sustained. The representation of the Capulet-Montague feud that dooms the young lovers crackled, and their apotheosis in the final measures soared in fullthroated lamentation.

The  only discordant note was some tuning difficulty in the winds, marring their hymnlike statement early on. This flaw turned out to be centered in the principal flute, as there was some below-pitch playing in  exposed passages in the second movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major. A characteristic strength of the Bahia Orchestra Project turned out to be the confidence and individualistic vigor of solo wind playing, however: In that same "Adagio assai," for instance, the English horn and bassoon solos were forthright. The cheeky E-flat clarinet in the finale helped shape its atmosphere.

The concerto's solo role was taken by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who adjusted to some tempo imprecision in the orchestra without ever breaking stride. His interpretation seemed as wholehearted as it would have been in collaboration with a topnotch professional orchestra, to which his international stature entitles him. His playing was rooted in the French idiom; as Castro pointed out in a preconcert interview, Thibaudet's teacher studied with Marguerite Long, for whom Ravel wrote the piece. The guest soloist's performance brimmed with delicate lyricism and firm articulation, classically oriented while at the same time full of 20th-century verve.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
The concert had two showcases for solo piano. After intermission, Castro conducted a performance of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" from the keyboard. Confirmation of the high profile of the Bahia Orchestra Project's winds came immediately with the famous upward swoop of the clarinet — a sensational opening from the time of the work's premiere 90 years ago Tuesday. That deftness was underscored by the companionable, sassy muted trumpet.

Castro's rapport with his musicians was evident throughout, as was his fitness for this piece. With success as a concert pianist in Europe before he turned his attention mainly to the Bahia Orchestra Project in his hometown of Salvador, Castro didn't settle for being flashy in this crowd-pleaser. The long, ruminative piano solo before the famous romantic tune is introduced by the orchestra was expertly proportioned, its bluesy baritone-range solo piquantly sung out.

The Bahia Orchestra Project can be justly celebrated not only for the opportunities it gives at home to a range of Brazilian youth from all social classes (4,000 is next year's anticipated enrollment), but also for the stamina and elan it can display in concert near the end of a two-and-a-half-week North American tour. And its Carmel visit also allowed five members of the orchestra to do what they're used to doing in Bahia: coach younger players. They are scheduled to work with eighth-grade string players at Creekside Middle School today.