Impassioned performances by Alasdair Neale, Joshua Roman, Alabama Symphony (music review)

Joshua Roman

By Michael Huebner

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- If Alabama Symphony's new music director had to be hired today, the search committee would be in a quandary. Since the search for Justin Brown's replacement began in earnest in late 2011, each successive guest conductor has brought great credentials, shown solid musicianship and delivered the goods in a variety of repertoire.

Some have clicked with the orchestra more than others, but excitement and anticipation have never wavered. Most of the credit, of course, goes to the orchestra itself, which is in peak form. Responding to the unique intricacies and nuances of each maestro's interpretations can only make them stronger.

On Friday, that melding of musical minds was immediately apparent when Alasdair Neale, an established conductor from the San Francisco Bay area and champion of new music, began a Masterworks concert by conducting Osvaldo Golijov's “Last Round.” An homage to Golijov's fellow Argentine Astor Piazzolla, the work captures the composer's highly spirited temperament on one hand, and gentle introspection on the other.

Divided into two camps, the orchestra's strings played with focus and confidence, an inner circle of nine taking up the strident, driving opening minutes (Piazzolla, apparently, was prone to fist fights), the rest of the band of 34 dispelling the dissonant clouds to make way for a haunting reminiscence of Piazzolla's “Milonga del Angel.” Responding to Neale's precise, animated gestures, the orchestra made perfect sense of this difficult work, rising to the intensity of the first movement, lapsing to the gentle sway of a ghostly tango at the work's end.

Cellist Joshua Roman, a 29-year-old rising star, soloed in Antonin Dvorák's Cello Concerto in B minor. In 2006, Roman became the principal cellist for the Seattle Symphony, almost unheard of for someone so young. Though he has since blossomed into a soloist and chamber musician, he played Friday with the instincts of an orchestral musician, matching phrasings, tempos and dynamic shifts with orchestral soloists and ensembles. His warm, sustained sound has a vocal quality to it, which served him well in the lyricism of the first movement and plaintive solos in the Adagio. Neale fashioned a fine balance – not always easy with the work's heavy scoring – letting loose on orchestra-only passages and sweeping legato phrases while giving the soloist, small orchestral groups and full orchestral tutti equal partnership.

After repeated curtain calls, Roman rewarded the audience with an encore, Mark Summer's bluesy, bluegrassy "Julie-O."


Brahms' Symphony No. 1 received similar treatment as the Dvorák from Neale. The opening movement was given an air of intrigue, fluid exchanges among sections defining its broad scope. Grand crescendos were set in relief by demonstrative baton swings. Many of this symphony's most beautiful moments take place in small increments – a solo here, a duo or trio there. Especially notable were solos from the principal woodwinds and hornist David Pandolfi, overlapping horn duets from Pandolfi and Kevin Kozak and Daniel Szasz's heartrending solo in the Andante. Lean yet powerful, the finale was a magnificent, and memorable, experience.