Curtis orchestra: A terrific student group with room to improve

Michael Stern conducts the Curtis Symphony Orchestra in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center. Photo: David DeBalko

What is the state of the orchestral training program at the Curtis Institute of Music at the moment? The question is worth asking mostly because so many Curtis orchestra concerts over the last 21/2 decades have so decisively tipped over into the professional-quality realm.

The Curtis orchestra playing Sunday night in Verizon Hall veered more into the territory of a terrific student group - highly capable, but never quite getting to the sophisticated ensemble concepts that have often made this group a startling and unlikely phenomenon.

We are speaking of a highly rarefied realm here. Few conservatory orchestras operate at such a high level. Reservations didn't have to do with flubbed notes (though there were some); accuracy, by my lights, is overrated. But Sunday's program missed strong opinions from the podium, occupied for two-thirds of the program by Curtis alum Michael Stern, music director of the Kansas City Symphony.

The other third of the repertoire went to Edward Poll, a conducting fellow (a position somewhere between student and professional) who brought order to Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, where finding the strange colors of instrumental doublings and dramatic tension might have moved the performance beyond pretty. And I wonder if somewhere in the percussion closet at Curtis there is a more delicate set of antique cymbals to strike (and if they could be played more quietly than they were).

Details, yes. But it is details, thoughtfully applied, that expand a skilled performance into a real interpretation.

The Curtis orchestra was a collective marvel in Edgard Varèse's Amériques, which seems no less explosive for the nine decades that have passed since its premiere in Philadelphia. It's an oversimplification to call it Le Sacre du printemps with sirens. But it has the same kind of driving tension. Some find it assaultive, but this audience seemed to understand the work that went into it and perhaps the endurance challenge it posed to young embouchures. Curtis orchestra concerts are always a result of the conductors who prepare the ensemble and the guest who arrives closer to curtain time - here, Stern. Whoever was responsible for this could feel a certain measure of victory for an incisive rendering of a thorny score.

Did the Brahms Symphony No. 1 after intermission suffer from tired chops, or benefit from being a salve? Some of each, I think. Stern was moderate on tempo, dynamics, and rubato. It was all very pleasant. He did, however, leave a list of overlooked opportunities to push these young musicians toward a more highly evolved collective sound. Somewhere, a deeper pizzicato sound was to be had. Balance between instrumental sections did not always reveal the most important material or an imaginative sense of blend. The third movement had an unsettled feeling, stemming from little hitches in transitions between changes in the character of the music.

Details again. But they are the sort that have defined this school. And they are the ones worth listening for in the fall when the orchestra reconvenes with its membership - if not its musical values - reshuffled once again.