The cookie-cutter formula for orchestral concerts usually leaves room for one impressive guest: the concerto soloist who plays between the overture and the intermission, before the big symphony in the second half.
But the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra has, for the most part, thrown out the cookie cutter, and Friday night's classics concert was dazzling thanks to two stunning visitors and the performance by an orchestra that is worthy of them.
Just hours after the concert, composer-in-residence Adam Schoenberg was scheduled to hop on an airplane to California to hear the Pacific Symphony of Costa Mesa present the West Coast premiere of his Finding Rothko. We don't expect contemporary composers to be that busy, but after the Philharmonic's world premiere performance of Schoenberg's Canto, it was clear why he is piling up frequent-flyer miles to catch all his red-letter days.
A name like Schoenberg and a piece described as atmospheric could easily lead to fears of dissonant, atonal compositions — those of Arnold Schoenberg. But this Schoenberg's adventures are more broadly pleasing while maintaining a sense of exploration. In pre-show remarks, Schoenberg described Canto as his idea of dreams his 8-month-old son Luca might have, and the work certainly was soothing, emerging from a soft murmur of strings sustaining notes and winds just being breathed into to lush washes of brass and low strings and shimmering percussion.
The piece put no small demands on conductor Scott Terrell and the orchestra, primarily restraint. And this came after a cardio workout of a concert opener, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Symphony No. 35, "Haffner."
But the rewards came almost immediately, when pianist Mark Tollefsen ran his fingers across the piano strings and the sustain melted into the violins. Trumpeter Stephen Campbell's solos into the open piano were the most memorable tune in the piece, but what made it unforgettable was how it moved seamlessly from texture to texture, such as the location-shifting that can happen in dreams unbound by laws of physics, geography or much of anything.
The piece stood in stark contrast to Schoenberg's American Symphony, which we heard from the Philharmonic in September and was as big as its namesakes — Copland-esque Western touches being the most consistent thread between it and Canto. And it will likely stand in contrast to the string quartet Schoenberg is writing for the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington this summer, the second part of the dual commitment as the Saykaly-Garbulinska composer-in-residence partnership between the groups.
Canto gave the audience something to talk about at intermission, while cello soloist Narek Hakhnazaryan added to the conversation post-concert. Almost as much a symphony as a concerto, the soloist can get lost in Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto. But in Hakhnazaryan's fully formed performance, he effectively grabbed the themes and made them his while maintaining the collaborative elan of the piece. His exchanges with flutists Pei-San Chiu and Merrilee Elliott in the second movement were particularly delightful, making it seem they should go form a chamber group.
After the triumph of the Dvorak, Hakhnazaryan closed the evening with an astonishing rendition of Giovanni Sollima's Lamentations, pulling at the strings and burning up the neck of his gorgeous instrument while offering Eastern vocalizations.
The crowd seemed a bit smaller than usual Friday, maybe due to the lovely spring evening and Keeneland, hopefully not due to an unfounded fear of new music. With the steadily increasing quality of the Saykaly-Garbulinska composers, the soloists and the orchestra, Philharmonic concerts are becoming indispensable events.
Without the cookie cutters, each one is unique.