Otto-Werner Mueller, the conducting pedagogue who died a year ago, had an influence that went well beyond the exclusive world of podium hoppers. Through work with instrumentalists in his lab-orchestra classes held at both Juilliard and Curtis, Mueller compelled hundreds of orchestral players to dive beneath the score's surface beauty for structure and meaning, and his name has now become something of a legend.
It's hard to follow a legend, and harder still to pay tribute to one by actually conducting. And so you had to feel for Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who led most of Sunday night's Curtis Institute of Music orchestra concert in Verizon Hall that served as a tribute to his one-time professor. The concert was a solid one, interestingly programmed and well played, but making one-to-one connections to Mueller, his values, and philosophies is a tall order.
Curtis' conducting program has changed much since Mueller stepped down in 2013, and now includes a system of conducting fellows – students – who take part of the orchestra programs. Here it was Carlos Ágreda, who led a fine Bernstein Candide Overture.
But as for tracing influence, connections between the soloist and student players were more apparent. Oboist and longtime Curtis faculty member Richard Woodhams brought out several distinct sides of his instrument's character in Barber's Canzonetta and Jean Francaix's L'Horloge de flore. This was Barber's final work – the only completed movement of what was conceived of as a concerto, its orchestrations by Charles Turner – and it gorgeously straddles serenity and worry. Woodhams underscored the ambivalence, manipulating tone to sharpen emotion.
The orchestra's wind players were clearly buoyed by Woodhams' presence in the Francaix, where hornist Ray Han, bassoonist Doron Laznow, and clarinetist Zhenwei Li were his spirited partners in passing material back and forth seamlessly.
Harth-Bedoya, who graduated from Curtis in 1991 and is now music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, was a steady guide through Strauss' Don Juan. Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 was a workout for the students, offering an impressive spectrum of flute colors: piccolo player Alex Lombo, Lydia Roth in the extended flute solo, with alto flutist Emma Resmini picking up the end in particularly sultry tones.
The most Mueller touch came in the beginning, with his 1969 orchestration of the "Star-Spangled Banner" of enormous dignity and warmth. The days of the Curtis orchestra being Muellerized may be over, but for this audience, with this piece, he remains a force.