Symphony in C returns; It opened the season with Stravinsky, Menotti and Mozart

Jennifer Koh
Philadelphia Inquirer

Lots of C's in the air Saturday as Symphony in C opened its season with a half-jokey branding effort that referenced tonalities, the city of Camden, and probably an unspoken reminder that Schoenberg once said, "There's lots of music still to be written in C."

Branding aside, Rossen Milanov's young orchestra did much more than ride high C's in its concert at Rutgers-Camden's Gordon Theater. The orchestra plays many roles in music and community building, but an important one is filling in the gaps in conventional symphonic programming. Milanov led stylish readings of Stravinsky's nearly forgotten Symphony in C, Menotti's not-quite-repertoire Violin Concerto, and Mozart's big C-major Symphony No. 41.

Those choices confronted a conundrum in music. As the repertoire grows, the essential works of the recent past are shunted aside for the new and the classically old. Who could have imagined Stravinsky being known now for only a handful of big ballets? Who would have guessed that Menotti's instrumental catalog would have been shelved so soon, especially given his long local connections?

Milanov is a canny programmer, for he not only revealed these pieces but, in choosing them, also illustrated two vital trends washing over music 60 years ago. Stravinsky had refined his work to such transparency that every note bore the full weight of his structure. Menotti, on the other hand, embraced romanticism anew, building his concerto on elegant melodies that could have been imagined only in the mid-20th century. Neither composer would have embraced the other in life, but their music made a striking companionship.

Milanov led his poised young players through the intricacies of the Symphony in C in a reading that was jaunty, sophisticated and colorful. The meters had sharp edges, the lyrical lifts at phrase endings completed the witty approach. The music makes soloists of nearly everyone, roles these players clearly relish.

The leap to Menotti's long lines seemed effortless. Violinist Jennifer Koh, who has also recorded the piece, commands a big, inflected sound, and in her playing found extraordinary eloquence in the leisurely melodies. Melody connects and explains everything in this piece. She made the virtuosic elements seem like the flavoring they are while pointing up the melodic references, hints and completions that make it such a satisfying work.

Her playing - beguiling, luminous as it was - was met by the ensemble. The players were listening as carefully as the audience. The piece ends with a whisper, often a bad tactic by a composer, but in this performance it provided the right dramatic flourish.

Mozart, after such a 20th-century discussion, brought out another strength in this orchestra. The pairs of winds infused the serious lines with wide-ranging color. Milanov saw this as the major statement that it is, the C-major tonality full of shadows and implications. The clarity of the string articulations - from bass to violin - showed the conductor's leadership can build big structures from intimate detail.