GSO Conductor Search: Thakar Set the Bar High
by William Thomas Walker
Excitement was palpable from both the audience and the musicians for the October 10 concert of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra in Greensboro's War Memorial Auditorium. It was the first of five pairs of concerts that will feature the finalists to succeed Stuart Malina as Music Director. The program's music was multinational - Hungarian, French and English - requiring a mastery of very different styles. Programs had blue "score cards" that allowed the audience to rate how well the conductor and orchestra seemed to work together, whether the conductor's "style" was good for Greensboro and how well the conductor's interpretation of the music rated. After the concert, a larger-than-usual crowd stayed for the "Meet the Artists" informal question and answer session, which lasted longer than usual, too The first candidate was Markand Thakar, currently the conductor of the Duluth-Superior Symphony and Co-Director (with Gustav Meier) of the Graduate Conducting Program at the Peabody Conservatory. He has a number of past connections to the area: he was a student at the Eastern Music Festival in 1968, served for a time as an assistant conductor to EMF Founder and Music Director Sheldon Morgenstern, and was leader of the Greensboro Youth Orchestra for two years, starting in 1980, during which time the SYO quadrupled in size, starting with only 14 players. After the concert, Thakar said that several current GSO players were in his youth orchestra or at the EMF, when he was there.
Not since Adam Fisher conducted the Hungarian State Orchestra at Duke in 1985 have I heard such idiomatic playing of a Hungarian composition as Thakar drew from the Greensboro Symphony in the opening piece, Zoltán Kodály's Dances of Galánta . Cathy Gant Hill, writing in the News & Record (10/8/02) reported that, as a Fulbright Scholar, Thakar had "studied conducting in Romania from 1979 to 1980 under the late Mircea Cristescu." After the concert, Thakar said he had spent much of his time in Western Romania, which shares a rich folk culture with Hungary, including dances from the Gypsy tradition. There, he had steeped himself in the local folk music, and the experience certainly paid dividends in his natural use of rubato and idiomatic phrasing. These five dances are based on a form called verbunkos or "recruiting dances." The GSO strings continued to exhibit unusually tight ensemble and gave him everything he asked for, from the deep rich cello tone that opened the piece to scurrying violin figures to wonderful pizzicatos and accelerations. The brasses were very good; there was a fine horn solo, early in the work, and some superbly subtle dynamics for the section came a bit later. Important woodwind solos went well, particularly those by flutist Debra Reuter-Privetta and oboist Cara Fish. As usual, clarinetist Kelly Burke was superb in her important solos, some requiring playing in the highest register, others with wonderful trills, and, near the end, a passage with some luscious chromatic trills leading to something like a birdcall.
Sassy elegance and subtle orchestral colors were highlights of Francis Poulenc's exquisite Concerto in D Minor, for two pianos and orchestra, which featured Robert and John Contiguglia as the duo pianists (and which will be heard again, courtesy of pianists Barbara Rowan and Francis Whang and the UNCSO in April). The pianos sometimes conjure up the sounds of a Balinese gamelan orchestra, with shimmering bell-like sounds, especially near the end of the first movement. Popular music from the Parisian stage and cafés is freely quoted in this bright, effervescent and spiky opener. The serene and lyrical middle movement is an homage to Mozart. The last movement abounds with tart wit and impudent cheek. Thakar and the orchestra adjusted to the clear textures and nuances of the French aesthetic, and the twin brothers were extraordinarily precise and stylish. After a warm reception from the audience, the brothers played "An English Waltz," by Percy Grainger. The composer arranged the waltz, originally part of an orchestral suite, for duo pianists and gave it to the 13-year-old Contiguglias after hearing them play. The piece, which isn't a folk arrangement, is witty and has a number of tunes unexpectedly forced into a waltz beat.
After the concert, Thakar explained that only the concluding work, Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations , had been in his repertory prior to this engagement. He said he had been pleased with the response the orchestra gave him. All the virtues ascribed to the musicians in the Kodály were heard throughout the Elgar. Thakar's interpretation was well within the bounds of the norm but still managed to sound fresh and vital, helped by the orchestra's enthusiasm. The balances and phrasing were excellent. Principal Violist Scott Rawls was peerless in the finest live performance of the "Ysobel" Variation I have ever heard; his plangent viola tone ravished the ear. The fluttering between the violins and woodwinds was delightful in the "Dorabella" Variation. The cellos, led by Beth Vanderborgh, were rich and glorious in the "B.G.N." Variation. Burke's clarinet was much in evidence, near the end and, earlier, in the "R.P.A." Variation. (For a discussion of the "enigmas" of Enigma , see http://www.elgar.org/3enigma.htm .)
The "Meet the Artists" started with the Contiguglia brothers answering a wide range of questions before Thakar joined them. They gave a short list of the limited repertory for two pianos and orchestra and waxed eloquent about the duo-piano compositions. A humorous answer revealed that their father could not tell the two twins apart and that they often suspected the same of their mother. Growing up with older siblings who studied music, they had learned to read music from them before their first formal piano lessons at the age of five! Thakar did pretty well in this format, of which current Music Director Malina is a master, but even he would have found the engaging and voluble twins a tough act to follow. The brothers rhapsodized about Schubert's four-hand piano music above all, saying that their teacher Dame Myra Hess' last instruction to them was an admonition always to promulgate this repertory. Our area will have an opportunity to relish some of these scores when the two present a Schubertiad at Elon University on April 1, when listeners will likely bask in the warm sound of the restored 1923 Model D Steinway, in Whitley Auditorium. Watch the CVNC calendar for full details.
The guest conductor has a good web site, http://www.markandthakar.com/ [inactive 8/05], which has an extensive biography, selected review highlights, etc. It was fascinating to read that he had done "extensive work with the Munich Philharmonic under the mentorship of Sergiu Celibidache." Other conductors he studied with include Gustav Meier, (the late) Max Rudolf, and Peter Perret, currently Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony.