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The Power of Positive Buddhism

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincon Centre
02/17/2009 -  
Bruce MacCombie: Samsara Rounds (World Premiere)
Franz Liszt: Concerto No. 2 in A Major for Piano and Orchestra, S. 125
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Opus 47

Bo Hu (Piano)
Juilliard Orchestra, James DePreist (Conductor)

James DePreist

Honor and awe are due to any student orchestra which is allowed to give the world premiere of an established composer. But the Juilliard Orchestra is not “any” student orchestra: it could be the finest in the world. And Bruce MacCombie is not any composer. He had been directly connected as Dean of Juilliard for several years, so certainly knows the expertise of its players.

Dividing his time between academia (he is now with the University of Massachusetts in Amherst) and composition may not be the most effective way to win immortality, but Mr. MacCombie has won respect and sometimes esteem for his delicate, clear and very accomplished works. His piece premiered last night, Samsara Rounds, obviously a sequel to his Nightshade Rounds for guitar, was deftly done , but it hardly lived up to its title.

The traditional Samsara, as I learned in Thai Buddhist training many years ago, means a journey when one tries to escape from emotions and extremes in the attempts to become enlightened. The practical Mr. MacCombie, though, gives a more fitting translation for living in America, defining it as “our ability to imagine very positive new worlds, move into them and live in them in creative ways.” I hope I’m not being disrespectful, but the differences in the definition are the same as the mysticism of the New Testament Gospels and the power of positive thinking.

Samsara Rounds was a very positive piece, starting quietly with the punctuation of various instruments in a facsimile of a single temple bell. The theme came out as a melody which played around with an ersatz Asiatic scale. Not the Debussy-Ravel whole-tone motifs, but something more on the line of Dmitri Tiomkin and a Cecil DeMille movie “oriental dance.”

In his other works, Mr. MacCombie has shown a great sense of humor, but this little tune was quite serious, and the orchestra developed it—with a monotonous four-four beat—to a great crescendo, before going back to the introduction and an end.

One could see the master craftsman behind the one-movement work, but the mundane material prevented it from becoming a master work.

But, like the two other works last night, the Juilliard Orchestra under James DePreist gave it a nice rendition. To be honest, they sounded better accompanying Death of Klinghoffer 18 days ago than on the stage of Avery Fisher Hall. This is a good string section, but it doesn’t resonate the way the Phil or visiting orchestra resonate. There were few technical errors (except for the horn), but one never felt that the orchestra was an organic entity. Individual solos were marvelous—I am thinking of the flute in Mr. MacCombie’s work or the lovely cello solo in the Liszt Piano Concerto—but more often one felt that the various consorts were playing with their own voices, not quite blending into a professional orchestra.

Still, they did a good job as accompanists for Bo Hu, a second-year student at the school with quite a bit of professional experience. His work was the Liszt Second Piano Concerto, a piece which altered the form of the concerto into one movement, but which, if not played very carefully, can seem to be a series of fanfares and showpieces ranging on the histrionic.

Mr. Hu obviously is a good technician, and he whizzed through all the sound effects with great élan, even to the point of raising his hands in triumph after each run on the scale. Still, outside of showing off his skill, the work is a thankless one for expressing the soul inside the fingers. And not even Mr. Hu’s Juilliard claque—as well as an appreciative audience—made the piece memorable.

The orchestra finished with Mr. DePreist conducting the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, which started a bit shakily but came to its senses for the next two movements. Alas, few conductors can resist turning the last movement Allegro ma non troppo into an Allegro molto, and Mr. DePreist ran the orchestra through a galloping finale.

The work doesn’t deserve that. When Maxim Shostakovich—who should know about these things—conducts the last movement with more tension than speed, so that the finale chorale comes as a benediction—we are listening to true mastery. The Juilliard Orchestra, for all their skill, ran through their paces like Bo Hu ran through the cascades or Franz Liszt.

Harry Rolnick



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