The Jacksonville Symphony’s Masterworks performance “A French Fantasy,” led by guest conductor Gemma New, served up an evening of kaleidoscopic color and broad musical range, featuring French music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The evening kicked off with “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas, a work made famous by Walt Disney’s animated film, “Fantasia.” Right from the start, New proved herself to be an unusually sensitive and expressive conductor, holding all aspects of this complex score in delicate balance. Throughout its 12-minute-long duration, the piece allows little rest for any section of the orchestra, requiring unflagging focus from both the instrumentalists and the conductor to achieve full effect. This was accomplished admirably and the performance bristled with a vivacious energy that clearly delighted an audience familiar with the work.
The second piece of the evening was the “Morceaux de concert,” Op. 154, by Camille Saint-Saëns, a composition for solo harp and orchestra. The featured soloist was Jacksonville’s own Kayo Ishimaru-Fleisher, who has served as principal harpist with the Jacksonville Symphony for more than three decades. It is a rare treat indeed to see the harp featured as a solo instrument on a symphony concert program. Ishimaru-Fleisher’s performance was nothing short of breathtaking; she handled her complex instrument with a grace and ease that was as much a treat for the eyes as for the ears. Conductor New and the symphony provided sensitive and attentive accompaniment, always supporting and never overpowering the soloist. This performance was easily this listener’s highlight of the evening.
Maurice Ravel’s “Alborada del gracioso,” closed the first half of the evening, a Latin-flavored orchestral showpiece that featured some standout solo work from the woodwinds, particularly the bassoons.
The second half of the concert opened with “Nocturnes” by Claude Debussy, a substantial and rarely performed early Debussy work which utilizes a women’s chorus. New and the symphony displayed a high level of dynamic control throughout the piece, so critical in an understated work that features incredibly subtle and nuanced gradations of light and shade. The women of the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus provided lush vocal color in the final movement that conjured just the right atmosphere of exotic mysticism.
The evening concluded in great spirits with a rousing rendition of Maurice Ravel’s beloved “Boléro.” All too often orchestras stumble by mustering all of their dynamic powers too early on, which defeats the effect of the slow and steady crescendo. Conductor and orchestra avoided this temptation and carefully apportioned the dynamics, keeping the full power of the ensemble in check before unleashing them in the final bars to great effect.
This latest Masterworks offering, “A French Fantasy,” is a feast for the eyes and heart as well as the ears, serving up a charming feast of French fare with style, warmth, and wit. I hope we can look forward to a return engagement from conductor Gemma New in the future.
Classical music reviewer Timothy Tuller is canon for music at St. Johns Cathedral.