Mester's final concert a strong statement to his best work
It was a high-octane farewell concert Saturday for departing maestro Jorge Mester with the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra and guest pianist Howard Shelley. In fact, it was such a good show, it would have been mistaken for an arrival party had not the standing ovation for Mester before his final work nearly choked up the Phil's music director of eight years.
Under other administrations, this might not have been such an exuberant occasion; as it was, the aura Saturday suggests Mester actually could be back as a guest conductor for the right program. There were hugs all around, two long curtain calls, and the dozen people who were so insensitive to race out the side door of the Philharmonic Center early missed the cake and Champagne that followed.
We're just kidding about the cake and Champagne. But Mester — and the orchestra — deserved it. In the eight years Mester has been music director here, the orchestra has taken on an increasingly complex mix of music. Its members rotate through a pre-19th century chamber series that regularly sells out; it has become part of all opera productions onstage here; and increasingly it is the orchestra of choice behind major names such as Itzhak Perlman and Renee Fleming, stars who previously came only in recitals.
This is in addition to the standard chamber series, the classical and pops concerts and ballet productions that are already on its plate. Mester was a contributor to the orchestra's flexibility, bringing in works that required creating strong textures, such as the Mahler Symphony No. 1 Saturday night, and programming eras other than the Romantic.
In 2003, when the New York Times mourned the insolvency of the Florida Orchestra, it called the Tampa Bay institution "the only major orchestra in South Florida." We don't think that would happen today.
However, the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra still doesn't even show up in a search for "symphony orchestras in Florida" online; we hope the next music director devotes a portion of his or her energies to championing the institution as well as further developing its skills.
And all of those skills were pressed into full service last weekend. What it didn't require in the Schumann Piano Concerto, with its first movement dialogue with woodwinds — including a stellar motif from Paul Votapek — it took from the brass, at least 16 strong and assertive, in the Mahler.
For an orchestra, Mahler must be a head-clearing experience, with his passion for dynamics — there are offstage trumpets that were conducted via hidden camera here — and instrumental rushes, as in the sunny "Ging heut Morgen übers Feld" melody of the first movement. The final movement defines sound and fury, and with such authority that contemporary film composers probably should be paying royalties to the Mahler estate.
Saturday, the timpani, always critical with Mahler, was dynamically precise from John Evans, as was percussion from James Dallas and section. Between them they created feats such as an eerie sustained cymbal rumble in the third movement and a hushed timpani movement close.
The Symphony No. 1 performed here is the four-movement version introduced in the U.S., and apart from the sensation that the first-movement's Tchaikovsky-esque lied denouement was a bit muddied in the speed, it was a sparkling performance. Both Mester and the orchestra were in top form, from the sunny first theme in the strings to the authoritative two-note setting that opens the second movement via Kevin Mauldin's and Adam Satinsky's bass and cello sections. Everyone, from viola section under Jessie Goebel to Dickie Fleisher on the harp, led some sort of audible charge.
It may be true to a lesser extent in the Schumann Piano Concerto, but the musicianship was beautifully handled there, too. This is the orchestra's second performance in about three years, and Shelley, a career-long student of piano concertos, takes his reading from the catalog of Schumann's works edited by the composer's favorite pianist — his wife, Clara.
That means a brisker performance, and while it may have jarred some aficionados, this one is spicy as well as emotive. If anything the one tempo change in the opening movement for its central segment is slower than expected, which we hope quells the misgivings of fans of an overall slower tempo.
Shelley's performance was clear, refined and full of expression, with crystalline trills in the cadenza and a responsive play to Judy Christy's sweet oboe motif. The opening movement was so warmly and confidently packaged the audience broke into spontaneous applause at the end of it. That's an easy mistake to make: At one time, this work was a single section, and known as a fantasy for piano and orchestra.
Where does the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra go next? We can only hope it includes places that Mester took it last weekend.
Harriet Howard Heithaus writes about classical music and dances for the Naples Daily News.