RSO review: Maestro Cohler successfully leads in debut

The Ridgefield Symphony’s “Welcome Maestro” concert last Saturday evening, with Maestro Yuga Cohler on the podium for the first time as the orchestra’s new music director, was a welcome treat, not only because it signaled a successful end of more than a year’s competitive search for a new leader, but more importantly because the extraordinarily high combined quality of Cohler’s direction and the orchestra’s response to it suggests that Ridgefield audiences have much to look forward to in upcoming seasons. The varied program, intended to celebrate both Maestro Cohler’s debut and the memory of former Ridgefield residents Howard and Rhoda Silverman, included Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, with RSO Concertmaster Jorge Avila as soloist, and César Franck’s Symphony in D minor.

Le Tombeau de Couperin, serving as Ravel’s tribute to the delicate elegance of early French music, is a beautiful series of dance movements featuring, particularly in the first movement, a seriously difficult solo oboe part, which RSO principal oboist Dorothy Darlington managed with easy grace. With ample evidence of serious rehearsal time, Maestro Cohler interpreted the entire work to perfection, communicating delicate shadings and phrasings to a sensitively responsive orchestra.

Along with a practiced collaborative skill with his soloist, Cohler’s fine-tuned general leadership was similarly in control for the Prokofiev concerto, and violinist Jorge Avila played the solo part with spectacular aplomb, with lovely phrasing and a richly supported violin tone in the work’s lyric passages and impressive virtuosic agility elsewhere, especially in the concerto’s exciting scherzo movement. The RSO is fortunate to have him both as a soloist and as its concertmaster.

César Franck’s only symphony is a beautiful work but a challenging one to play because its overall development springs from a slowly played three-note motto theme that composers other than Franck had also used, often thinking of those three notes as musically suggesting a question, which Beethoven verbally translated as “Muss es sein? (Must it be?). That troubling musical question is repeatedly posed throughout the symphony in a prolonged development that is finally happily resolved before the last movement ends. Maestro Cohler skillfully managed it, however, in a way that held everything together in artistic unity. And there were beautiful segments too, especially in the second movement, where (to my knowledge) Franck was the first composer to use the English horn as a thematic solo instrument — a practice frequently revisited since, famously, for instance, in the second movement of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony.

It was a wonderful concert, and with Yuga Cohler now on the podium, we can safely anticipate more wonderful ones for the Ridgefield Symphony’s next season and beyond.