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Symphony by the Sea Sparkles at Abbott Hall


In summer, Marblehead has sailboats; in winter, Marblehead has Symphony by the Sea. Because of the snow, we missed the pre-concert talk. But with Strauss’ Prelude to “Capriccio,” Op. 85, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Op. 40, and Dvorak’s Serenade in E Major, Op. 22, the program at Abbott Hall on Saturday, January 29, for string orchestra was going to be a treat. It was cold, and I entered Abbot Hall thinking Grieg’s Holberg Suite was just the right opening piece — energetic, bright, and sparkly. But the warmth of the first phrase of the Strauss melted all thought of the cold. It cast a spell that I can only relate to a comfortable, warm seat by an open fire. Completely transported (where did I put the glass of warm brandy?), the order of the program was perfect. And that choice set the standard for the entire concert. Donald Palma led the strings of Symphony by the Sea with attention to detail, skill, and artistry that is hard to find.

The music flowed off the stage of Abbot Hall (the Marblehead home of SBS) and out into the audience. Such detail, such balance. At times like a tennis match the violins would state a phrase, the cellos would take it and return it: Back and forth the phrases went, then the violas interrupted with their rich, dark sound. The cellos entered and reminded us of the warmth of the opening. Is this heaven? The Strauss was beautiful.

There are many ways to mar the delicateness of the Barber, but Palma played it straight with a tempo that was just right. The balance made the textures transparent so the voices were all clear. One rarely hears the piece in this way: played simply, without a lot of extra emoting. The ending simply faded away. One could no longer tell if the last notes were still sounding or not. There was no real cutoff — the music simply floated away into an extended silence. The audience continued listening long after the sound passed and that says it all: This was a powerfully moving performance.

Throughout, Palma used his whole body as an instrument. The orchestra responded beautifully to his direction, whether it was a strong cue from the right hand, a more subtle gesture from the left, or even a timely raising of a shoulder. He uses levels like a dancer and everything counts to good musical result. What a treat: No wasted motions, no gestures for effect.

The orchestra was in fine form. The Grieg was in exactly the right place in the program and what a delight it was. The high energy of the “Praeludium” was just the thing to bring us back after the Barber. It was filled with detail. The falling melodic sequence of the violins was picked up by the bustling violas, who brought the melodic line back up the violins who repeated the gesture. This was delightful music-making. The combination of the violins’ melody and the pizzicatos in the basses was breathtaking. The plaintive cello melody in the “Sarabande” played by first cellist Cheryl Campbell carried us away. In the “Air,” the basses and cellos took up the melody and made us experience anew the real depth those instruments bring to the orchestra. Robin Scott, a graduate student from the New England Conservatory, was the concert master and what a talent! His performance of the solos in the opening of the “Rigaudon” were totally commanding and beautifully supported by the viola (Melissa Bull) and the rest of the violins, who provided rhythmic punctuation.

That could have been the end, but there was, happily, still more after intermission. The Dvorak Serenade opened with its busy bustling, yet lyrical first movement. The soft and delicate falling of the violins in the waltz movement, the careful measuring of musical space that takes place in the dialogue between double basses and the first violins gave new dimension to the sound of the orchestra. Then came the playful “follow the leader” of the cellos and violins in the third movement, designed to set up the more reflective and lyrical Larghetto that followed. There was a moment in the faster section of this movement that reminded us we were not in heaven, but on we went to the explosive opening of the last movement. Suddenly and all too soon, the evening of music was over. It was a wonderful concert from beginning to end. What a gift from Symphony by the Sea and Marblehead’s Abbot Hall.

The next concert on the second Saturday of April (9 April 2011) will feature Sibelius’ Pelleas et Melisande Suite, Op 46, Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, and the Schumann’s Concert for Violoncello, Op. 129, with cellist Joel Krosnik. There will be no snow by then. Make the trip and give yourself and a friend (or your whole family) a present to be long remembered.

Lyle Davidson, composer, studied at New England Conservatory and Brandeis. He is on the faculty of the New England Conservatory where he teaches Solfege, 16th-century Counterpoint, and Music in Education courses.

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