Larry Rachleff seems to be the go-to man for whipping an orchestra into shape in short order. Patrons of the Music Academy of the West eagerly anticipate the Academy Festival Orchestra performances that, year after year, hit a high note while only a few short paces away from the Festival starting block. This year Maestro Rachleff, long-time director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic and director of Rice University’s Shepherd School orchestras, did double-duty with Academy Festival Orchestra performances capping both weeks one and two. On the first night of summer an orchestral subset played the newly renovated Lobero Theatre in a program of Richard Strauss for brass, and early symphonies by Prokofiev and Beethoven. A week later on June 28 at the Granada Theatre, Rachleff stood before full orchestral forces for—more Strauss for brass, and symphonies again by Prokofiev and Beethoven—this time the heroic Nos. 5 for each. Simply put, as one patron called to another on the street afterwards, “Wasn’t THAT energetic?!”
Saturday’s opener, Vienna Philharmonic Fanfare (1924) by Richard Strauss, was a minor affair in duration compared to the forty-minute An Alpine Symphony (1914-15) conducted (and arranged) by Chicago Symphony trombonist Jay Friedman the previous week. But good things come in small packages, especially where fanfares are concerned. A half dozen each of trumpets, trombones, horns, as well as tuba and timpani stood alert in two neat rows, and on Rachleff’s downbeat dazzled the air with brass choir sonorities—a two-minute tidbit of bright light and royal welcome.
And short was wise as well as sweet for such a prelude to the evening’s main course: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, popularly quoted and caricatured for its four-note “door-knock of fate,” yet encompassing in fact a universe of beloved and lesser-known themes. Beethoven’s Fifth is one of the very greatest works of art ever produced—deeply stirring, humane, restless, exultant, and sublime. Patrons might be forgiven for wondering beforehand: Is it asking too much for group of young twenty-something musicians (albeit the finest in their age-group) to articulate one of the greatest monuments of the human spirit? It’s safe to say that no one was asking anything of the sort during the standing ovation that followed the relentless concluding coda. Rachleff’s conducting was beautiful to behold, his gestures and cues revealed how deeply this symphony (conducted from memory) has encoded his being. Festival Fellows closely followed his fierceness and focus, and released an animated performance worthy of the inimitable grandeur of the work. It was energetic—and the energy was distributed in a special trajectory, a holding-back through the first movements (buh-buh-buh-bumm, rather than BUH-BUH-BUH-BUMM, so to speak), with a blowing-off of the doors during the magisterial opening of the fourth movement.
You’re not likely to leave the theater humming themes from Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No.5 (1944) as you might the Beethoven. One hundred forty years of industrial progress, two ghastly world wars, and lost innocence separated the modern Russian composer from his German Romantic counterpart. The two 5ths emanate from different eras and mindsets entirely, and it proved challenging (for this listener, in any case) to shift gears Saturday from the triumphant certainties that ended the one to the unsettled tonality and pedestrian brooding of Prokofiev’s first movement. The dance of the Allegro marcato, however, became irresistible. Late in that movement the momentum comes to a standstill, and a soli brass section commences to recap the main theme while accelerating a tempo—and the brass section was breathtaking. Prokofiev’s string writing struck novel heights in the Adagio that followed, mesmerizing in the silvery weeping descents of tight tonal clusters. As the 45-minute symphony raced to its snare-driven finale with punctuating brass and woodwind flurries, it was evident to everyone that these musicians of tomorrow had themselves faced the heroic spirit heroically.