Curtis Orchestra dances at Verizon Hall

The most dynamic orchestra in the city emerges each year with a few surprises among its ranks. So it was Sunday afternoon, when the Curtis Institute of Music's fall class of instrumentalists found form as a symphony orchestra in dancerly works of Strauss, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky.

Tallying individual talent is great sport - a bassoonist who took the opening to The Rite of Spring as if as if she were born and raised on a high wire – and yet there was something more significant at work. Heavy rehearsals and an Allentown performance the previous night no doubt lent surety. But sometimes these concerts reach only as far as the didactic, and by the time this program conducted (mostly) by Michael Stern arrived in Verizon Hall, two professional characteristics were bubbling away: solos of fully realized personality, and an ensemble identity that seemed to be inventing itself on the spot.

Curtis orchestra 3 - photo credit David DeBalko1
Michael Stern leads the Curtis Orchestra Sunday afternoon in Verizon Hall. Photo: David DeBalko

A more vivid orchestral sound has been rarely heard in this hall. It’s not just that it was loud. In the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome, conducting fellow Kensho Watanabe presided smartly over Strauss’ calculating orchestrations, allowing colors to project with gorgeous clarity. Stern, music director of the Kansas City Symphony and a Curtis graduate, might not have fully trusted the instrument at his disposal at the beginning of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, so conservative were his expressive risks. True, trifling balance and ensemble troubles were heard at the start, but they quickly lifted to reveal qualities that could light a fire under some professional orchestras. Double-basses, placed stage right, penetrated in a way that comes only from absolute lock-step unity – so, too, the horns and trumpets.

Catherine Chen’s opening bassoon solo in The Rite of Spring, assured and startlingly lyrical, signaled an orchestra-wide philosophy. Every detail was worked out – alto flutist Patrick Williams had a tone both silken and big-boned - and yet the collective sound was anything but playing it safe. To be fair: professional orchestras can play three or four concerts a week, and it’s probably not realistic to expect the same intensity you hear from the Curtis students, who funnel all their energies into three concerts a year. For most in this orchestra, this was likely a first time playing the piece at this level, and the synergies seemed almost more than could be contained. Curtis might be alone in being able to bottle that kind of alchemy.