At Curtis Orchestra, a turn in the spotlight for one woman - and many

The Curtis Institute of Music orchestra Sunday in Verizon Hall with conductor Gilbert Varga.

As the tale goes, Scheherazade spins a story a night for the murderous king, but she leaves off in the middle of the telling every time so he will have to spare her life one more day to hear the ending.

Exactly what story one took away from Sunday afternoon’s Curtis Institute of Music orchestra concert of Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous setting of Scheherazade was up to each listener. Given the times, though, it was hard to receive aural information divorced from the visual; most of the important solos rising from the orchestra happened to be the work of women.

First, let’s get the one spectacular male soloist out of the way. In numerous horn solos, Alex Lane played with an accuracy and security all too rare on the instrument. What’s more, he had a classic heroic sound that rang in Verizon Hall without the sloppy garble between notes that some players think of as expressive tools.

Camera icon David DeBalko
Members of the Curtis Institute of Music orchestra wind section (from top) clarinetists Yuhsin Su and Tania Villasuso with bassoonists Marlène Ngalissamy and Hanul Park.

But as the other most prominent solos fell into place, it was hard not to notice — oboe, clarinet, bassoon, English horn, and cello sounds all came from women. The Curtis orchestra has long been stocked by women, even in the brass section. But given our ongoing conversation about equity, are we listening differently today?

And is that fair to them and the music when we do listen differently?

On the one hand, that so many women were in positions of power Sunday seemed like sweet justice (especially for those of us with young daughters for whom there is a lot at stake in the messaging department). On the other, when we gauge the value of art through the social-justice lens, we aren’t being fair to those we’re cheering on. We are legitimizing a sliding scale and risking  condescension to the artists and the art.

But no sliding scale is used here, and none was needed. In her solo opening near the start of the “Tale of Prince Kalendar” movement, bassoonist Marlène Ngalissamy gave a fully evolved shape and sinewy sound to the long phase. Nuanced, authoritative, rendered in a variety of colors, it was a solo to win auditions. Cassie Pilgrim’s oboe solo was elegant and straightforward. Clarinetist Tania Villasuso was a virtuoso with an ear for joy.

I wondered whether one of Gilbert Varga’s gestures really helped concertmistress Ania Filochowska in yielding the floor to her with such physical flourish before one of her many fine solos. Vargas is of the aerobic school of conducting, but if he had simply turned his head to her at the appropriate moment, she might have been better served.

But these students will encounter all kinds of conductors after they leave Curtis, after all, and these concerts are about learning. All three pieces on the program were masterpieces of orchestration. One more wasn’t in the printed program. Barber’s Adagio for Strings, conducted by Carlos Ágreda, was added as a last-minute tribute to Milton L. Rock, the businessman and former Curtis board chairman who died Saturday.

Immediately following, John Corigliano’s The Mannheim Rocket, led by conducting fellow Yue Bao (another woman), was all jolt, rumble, and lurch. The title of the piece refers to an 18th-century musical technique of a rising figure, and the work indeed uses rising momentum. But more striking was the every-toy-in-the toy-shop orchestration with its exotic percussion, and the students’ apparent ease with it all. The textures ranged from floaty-magical to assaultive. Corigliano’s work, from 2000, no doubt challenged; it was a reach for the audience, too, I think. But it made the case quite successfully that getting out of your comfort zone is a journey worth taking.

Camera icon David DeBalko
The Curtis Institute of Music orchestra, with Ania Filochowska as concertmistress, performed in Verizon Hall on Sunday afternoon with conductor Gilbert Varga.

Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin suite is built to impress, and impress it did. The students mastered the score, and in a couple of spots Varga added a dancerly aspect or inspired the players to appropriate savagery.

The conductor, though, seemed generally in a rush all afternoon. It wasn’t that his tempos were quick, but he repeatedly passed up the chance to stretch an arrival point here or finesse a transitional moment there — the kind of expressive chance-taking and imagination that helps to create a sense of story. It was especially so in the Scheherazade, where one woman once showed the reward that can come when you take your own sweet time.