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  • Abrams ushers in new era for Britt Orchestra

  • Teddy Abrams hit the Britt stage with a bang in his debut as the classical festival's new leader Friday night, leading the Britt Orchestra in a piece he composed for the occasion and daring to bring out nothing less that Beethoven's incomparable Symphony No. 5 as the evening's climax.
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  • Teddy Abrams hit the Britt stage with a bang in his debut as the classical festival's new leader Friday night, leading the Britt Orchestra in a piece he composed for the occasion and daring to bring out nothing less that Beethoven's incomparable Symphony No. 5 as the evening's climax.
    "We had a first date last year, and now we're married," he joked, referring to his winning the director's baton at Britt last year after a nationwide search.
    Britt's classical season runs through Aug. 17 and includes guest appearances by several performers with national and international reputations (see Brittfest.org).
    Abrams' "Overture in Sonata Form" turned out to be a sunny number that mixes classical tropes such as counterpoint with nods to modernist forms from folk to jazz and even mini-hints of Latin rhythms in a joyous, somewhat swinging, highly accessible whole. Mixing lovely melodies with some surprising colors, the piece seemed like nothing so much as a celebration of the sheer scope of modern and postmodern music.
    "Sonata form" refers to the pattern of the first movements of many of the most famous symphonies, including the first and last movements of Beethoven's Fifth — a daunting choice that almost ensures you'll be compared with the immortals.
    We tend to think of "The Firebird" as an orchestral work, but Igor Stravinsky wrote it for the 1910 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company based on old Russian folk tales of a magical bird that could be both a blessing and a curse. The project catapulted the unknown young composer to lasting fame.
    It exists not only as a ballet but as different "suites" later arranged by Stravinsky himself. The version the orchestra played brimmed with deeply Russian colors and Stravinsky's bold use of the rather dissonant tri-tone.
    After the rather murky-lurky beginning, the ballet's hero, Prince Ivan, entered the magical realm of Kashchei the Immortal, and the orchestra played a moody, descending motif clearly inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov, who had been Stravinsky's teacher, grounded in the strings.
    Like Shakespeare, Stravinsky wasn't above a little stealing. He even used the same folk tune Rimsky-Korsakov used in his "Sinfonietta" Opus. 31. The glissando harmonics in the strings always sound like Stravinsky was trying to outdo his old mentor, who had dumped him for another young composer.
    The strings became agitated and picked up the tempo as the magic bird entered the ballet, then moved into a dance with orchestral fireworks. Diatonic scales marked the presence of the 13 princesses Ivan must save in a glorious dance.
    For the infernal dance of the terrible King Kaschei and his ogres, the pulsing rhythms and crashing passages created a mood of the demonic. The gentle Berceuse featured the bassoon and some lacy accompaniment from the strings and harp. After a series of descending chords, the Finale, in which Kashchei's captives are freed, was heralded by a horn, and the orchestra swept to a thunderous climax.
    After the intermission came Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, with the ominous da-da-da-DUM opening that's probably the most familiar musical motif in the world. If the Fifth doesn't get your blood pumping, you're probably already dead.
    Conductors still differ on how the opening motif should be played. Abrams and the Britt Orchestra Friday night charged out of the gate in straight-ahead allegro mode.
    Others favor a more stately treatment. Whatever your druthers, you didn't want to think too long about this sort of thing, because the grim first movement quickly took off on those roiling sequences that seem to come tumbling one over the other and immerse us in Beethoven's very soul.
    As the second theme, the E flat major, came in with the lyrical piano, the four-note figure, sometimes called the Fate motif (because of the story that Beethoven said it was fate knocking at the door) shifted gracefully to the string accompaniment. The highly animated Abrams' reading of the coda was truly massive.
    The second movement, the Andante con moto in A flat major, allowed the tension to relax a bit as the Fate motif vanished and the violas and cellos, accompanied by the double basses, brought in the new theme. After the stormy crescendos that ended the second movement, Abrams had the cellos and double basses singing as they returned to the opening key (C minor) to play back and forth with the winds. The final return of the scherzo was given a lacy delicacy by the strings playing pizzicato.
    The final movement managed to be heroic and romantic at the same time. The long, building coda of the finale grew more exciting as the tempo sped, and the whole, epic thing climaxed with those amazing 29 bars of fortissimo C major chords in which all the rage, sorrow and longing are resolved in full-voiced splendor. The audience responded with a prolonged ovation, sensing that at Britt a new era had begun.
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