Review: Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra

After several years without concerts scheduled for the Ridgefield Playhouse, the Ridgefield Symphony returned there last Saturday evening with an all-Mozart program under the direction of John Cuk, who has taught music in public schools for more than 30 years and currently serves on the faculty at Scarsdale High School in New York. Mr. Cuk’s program included the Overture to Don Giovanni, the Divertimento No. 1 in E-flat (K 113), Symphony No. 41 in C major (the Jupiter), and Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, with the young Chinese-born virtuoso Angelo Xiang Yu as soloist.

Although in all honesty there were a couple of negatives that are hard for me to ignore, all of Saturday evening’s performances afforded enjoyable listening, and there was nothing to dispel the conviction that Mozart’s music always provides a feast for the ears.

One flaw, though, most evident early in the program, at least from where I was sitting, is that the orchestral sound was muted and failed to project effectively, with string tone (especially from the violins) seeming thin and distant. A second problem, at least for me, was that Maestro Cuk, probably because of his long experience leading groups of young musicians, uses his baton much of the time as a sort of visual metronome, pulling the orchestra along in ways that defeat expressive rhythmic flexibility, causing some passages to sound like read-throughs rather than expressive interpretations.

With that out of the way, though, there is much to praise. Maestro Cuk and violinist Angelo Xiang Yu were first-rate collaborators, with the orchestra providing both substantial body and excellent accompaniment for the soloist, whose solo performance was quite wonderful. Mr. Yu’s well-worked-out interpretation of the fourth violin concerto was both musically sound and effectively expressive, and he delivered it with a prize-winning combination of virtuosic technique and impressive control. Also, although too much showmanship from a performer can be more of a distraction than an aid to musical enjoyment, Mr. Yu demonstrated his awareness that an obvious advantage of live music is that a performer’s natural “body language” and changes of facial expression can enhance an audience’s enjoyment.

The Divertimento in E-flat, played after the intermission, is a refreshing example of the blossoming genius of the young Mozart, with his first orchestral use of the clarinet, which would become a favorite instrument for him because of its unusual expressive range and technical agility. Maestro Cuk and the orchestra carried it off beautifully, with special kudos earned by clarinetists Edward Wojtowicz and Mary Jane Rodgers and hornists Sara Della Posta and Marjorie Callaghan.

More Ridgefield Playhouse performances by RSO members would be welcome add-ons in future Ridgefield Symphony seasons, particularly if special attention can be given to relevant programming. Although Mozart’s orchestrations are tiny compared to the monster ones of later composers like Gustav Mahler, works like the Don Giovanni overture and the Jupiter Symphony, which have been heard innumerable times in the largest concert halls, are enhanced by full orchestral sections and gain nothing from downsizing in small venues. An RSO Playhouse concert some years ago featuring Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat, a dramatic musical work intended for a small venue, was a good choice, was well done, and was enthusiastically received. A knowledgeable search could provide numerous other good choices.