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Review: 'Bravos' pour down on DSSO opener

If the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra were a college football team, this would be a transition year. Though most of its talent is intact, its leader for five seasons, Yong-yan Hu, left after last season for a position in China. So concert-goe...

If the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra were a college football team, this would be a transition year.
Though most of its talent is intact, its leader for five seasons, Yong-yan Hu, left after last season for a position in China. So concert-goers Saturday, used to a high level of performance, may not have known just what to expect.
They left Saturday night with the enthusiasm of boosters who have just seen their team score a surprise blowout victory in its home opener. The DSSO not only picked up where it left off, it actually moved ahead in its first post-Hu concert, under the baton of renowned guest conductor James Paul.
The music, in an interesting program of Wagner, Bizet and Rachmaninoff, helped.
Politically and musically controversial, Richard Wagner provokes reactions: you love him or hate him. But even those who cringe at Wagner probably enjoyed this piece -- though still masking political overtones, it is regarded by some as his "sunniest" and "most human."
Georges Bizet is best known for "Carmen," but though the name of his "L'Arlesienne" may not be familiar, the music certainly is. During his short composing life, he wrote pieces radically different than his contemporary, Wagner.
Finally, it was Serge Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 3," the "Rach 3." Rachmaninoff was among the elite pianists of his era, and his demanding concertos are geared to his own large hands. The Rach 3 is known not only for its technical demands, but for the versatility and "pianistic vocabulary" required.
The Rach 3 is known best to late 20th century audiences because of the 1996 movie "Shine," where it was a central part of the plot. During the movie's run, debate between purists and pragmatists broke out, purists shunning pop culture's ignorance and pragmatists asserting that anything which widens classical music's audience is probably a good thing.
The DSSO managed to cover both bases: while marketing the concert based in part on fame from the movie, the program notes contain only this caustic reference: "... (the piece) thankfully offers the listener a great deal more than the regrettable recent film that brought the work to the attention of a broad public."
All-in-all, a very interesting program, with three excellent, approachable pieces.
And the symphony delivered on the promise of each. During the Wagner, the brass made hay with Wagner's heroic melodies. Despite a couple of minor rhythmic foibles, the piece came out very well.
Thus warmed up, the orchestra leapt into Bizet, demonstrating crispness and confidence on challenging rhythmic sections and a broad facility with dynamics and style. The rhythmically-intense finale to this piece showcased some of what this orchestra is capable of, and was played so tightly and precisely that the audience demanded a curtain call of Paul at its conclusion. Keep in mind, this is before intermission.
Paul's performance is worth noting. The accomplished conductor is understated and almost seems to shun attention, but he was nevertheless keenly connected with the orchestra. During the Bizet, close observers could see him alternating between conducting with his hands and baton, depending on how intricate the music was. This, perhaps, comes from his long experience in choral directing, where conducting sans-baton is standard.
It could not have been a more perfect contrast to Hu, who, with flamboyance and flair, wielded his baton like a sword during his years here.
If the style was understated, the results he and the orchestra produced did not lack for punch. Paul and the orchestra seemed to have a genuine rapport, and Paul knows how to milk a moment: during the Bizet, after a particularly well-played close to a movement, he held the pause until it seemed it would break.
The audience was buzzing during intermission, but by any measure, the coup de grace came with the Rach 3 that closed the concert. Irish pianist Barry Douglas has impeccable credentials and demonstrated exactly why as he rocked the Rach 3.
It's difficult to describe the demands this piece places on a pianist. Fast fingers don't even come close; the soloist covers the entire keyboard and covers such a broad range of styles, from the subtle to the flashy, that it's mind-boggling. Douglas, like Paul, is understated and lets the music do the talking. The piece looked almost effortless, and it pinned the audience in their seats from the first movement.
The orchestra also shined in this piece. One of the areas where the DSSO, frankly, has recently struggled in my opinion is in staying with soloists. Not so here: the transitions were seamless, even on very difficult sections, and piano and orchestra worked very nicely together.
Within seconds of Douglas' last note, the audience was on its feet. Even the lighting people at the DECC auditorium spotlighted Douglas after a repeat curtain call, expecting an encore. Perhaps the only disappointment of the evening is that no encore was given.
If this concert is any indication, symphony patrons will get their money's worth during this "transitional" season.
Kyle Eller is the Budgeteer reviewer-at-large and a member of the Duluth-Superior Symphony Chorus. Contact him at 723-1207 or send e-mail to kyle.eller@duluth.com .

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