Guillermo Figueroa - Reviews

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Reviews

American Record Guide, September/October 2004

The New Mexico Symphony has done what any American orchestra must do if it wants to appear on records these days: make them itself. With commercial contracts all but dried up, probably for good, and radio broadcasts and touring increasingly difficult to finance, self-recording is about the only way an orchestra can publicize itself beyond its local area. Most mid-level and higher ensembles try to have a “calling card” CD or two to sell as souvenirs or give away as premiums to donors.

The NMSO and conductor Figueroa are offering a bit more: music-making well above routine. I listened to this shortly after hearing several radio broadcasts by my own “home” orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony, which I’ve long considered one of the best ensembles outside the top rank of American orchestras. In the performances preserved here, the NMSO does not concede anything to the MSO in terms of polish, precision, and overall beauty of tone. They are greatly aided by the near demo-quality recorded sound produced by Brent Stevens. This is the kind of sound big-name record companies aim for and often miss. The bass is rock-solid, wonderful in the finale of the symphony and Figueroa’s spirited, exciting ‘Danse generale’ at the end of the Ravel suite. The string tone is captured with clarity and warmth – no murkiness or steely edge to the upper range – but the woodwind details that are so important in the Berlioz are never lost in the overall sound. Spaciousness without excess reverberation, detail without spotlighting or clinical dryness, and immediacy and clarity without aggressiveness: What’s not to like?

As a violinist Figueroa was a member of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Lately, he’s moved into conducting and was appointed music director of the NMSO in 2001. All three of these performances were recorded in concert: the Ravel at the April 2001 concert that led to the offer to become music director, and the Berlioz and Tchaikovsky at his first concerts as music director in September 2001. Judging from his versatility here, from the breezy, brash open vigor and lightness of the Berlioz to the lush, sensuous Impressionism of the opening ‘Lever du Jour’ of the Ravel, to the angst and soaring melodic richness of the Tchaikovsky, it is clear that the orchestra made a wise choice in engaging this gentleman.

After slogging my way through the dead-weight Rozhdestvensky’s unrelenting scrappy, edgy Tchaikovsky Fourth (above) I would have been well disposed toward any ordinary, decently recorded Tchaikovsky Fourth. So Figueroa’s sounded fine on first hearing – but it has held up well on repeat listenings, even after comparison with Michael Tilson Thomas (an outstanding Tchaikovskian) leading the San Francisco Symphony on a recent PBS broadcast in a Fourth as stunning as you’re likely to hear in any age. Nobody would argue that the NMSO and Figueroa will supplant the Berlin Karajan (EMI), the DG Bernstein, or Monteux (RCA) as one of the finest recorded accounts ever. But there is much to enjoy here. I particularly enjoyed the firm, unforced, burnished brass in the finale and the powerful but not overwrought coda of the first movement. The natural flow and lyricism of Figueroa’s Andante quickly banished bad memories of Rozhdestvensky’s brusque, boring account; and the charmingly puckish strings are relieved by equally alert and piquant brass in III. One understands why the orchestra moved quickly to secure his services. The audience cheers at the end as much as Rozhdestvensky’s did, but at least here I understand why.

This is one of those surprising little gems that is all the more gratifying because its substantial merit was unexpected. I don't usually say this about recordings by regional ensembles, but this one is worth checking out by non-New Mexicans for its musical qualities and demonstration sonics. I don't expect ever to find my way to Albuquerque, but if I do, I hope I'll be able to catch a concert by this excellent orchestra. And another recording wouldn't be unwelcome either.

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