Walking into the Singletary Center for the Arts Saturday night, I noticed so many couples holding hands—was this a tipoff that romance was in the air? The program by the Lexington Philharmonic certainly promised as much.
The concert opened with George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, a brilliant evocation of Havana, with Gershwin’s signature bluesy melodies combining with popular Cuban songs. It might have been interesting to see the percussionists in front of the orchestra, as Gershwin intended. But not doing so elicited a more serious response to the piece. Under Scott Terrell’s direction, the work seemed much more substantial than I had remembered it. Not that the rendition wasn’t great fun, but it didn’t play as a novelty — the orchestra presented an assured piece.
Turning to Tchaikovsky next was a bit of a surprise, but his First Piano Concerto is full of surprises itself, even after many hearings. It, too, quotes popular songs and folk tunes (here Ukrainian, Russian, and French), and the first movement especially plays with our expectations, from the expansive romance of the opening soon giving way to a more playful idea, then back to high drama, to the unexpected lift at the end. It’s not quite true that the opening theme never reoccurs (Do I detect a witty nod to it in the opening of the last movement?), but Tchaikovsky works with such a wealth of material that he doesn’t need to keep revisiting older themes explicitly.
The orchestral opening of the concerto can be arresting, but here the orchestra didn’t match the passion it brought to the Gershwin. However, this was more than compensated by the playing of pianist Inon Barnatan. In his hands, the first theme was shaded with more nuance than most pianists can muster in an entire piece. Dynamics were molded into lines of astonishing variation; in this context, the listener often got the impression that, among other impossible feats, Barnatan was able to swell the chords themselves. Even in the delicate upper-register passages, he summoned enough power to dominate the movement. While he evoked ardor, the orchestra played with sentiment.
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This approach proved much more successful in the second movement, where the players collaborated in a heartbreakingly lovely performance, featuring especially beautiful work by flutist Pei-San Chiu. By the end of the third movement, all musicians were playing as one, relishing the changes in material, in dynamics, in tone, in attitude. The audience leapt up, literally cheering the finale.
After intermission, the orchestra performed a tribute to Kerry Zack, an important catalyst and supporter of arts and education, and wife of conductor emeritus George Zack, who died earlier this month after a short battle with lung cancer. Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” from The Enigma Variations achieved its effects masterfully: the orchestra turned the opening into a heartfelt hymn and the closing into a cathartic triumph. The performance was, in a word, stunning.
The evening closed with more music of Latin color, this time by Maurice Ravel. After a light-hearted rendition of his Alborada del gracioso, they turned to the famous Bolero. Whether you love or hate the piece probably depends on your understanding of Ravel’s intentions or whether you play the snare drum. Melodic development is minimal to nonexistent; the work depends on the orchestration to carry the day, and Ravel delivers a myriad of orchestral colors, including the delightfully thick crayon of the tenor saxophone. So many soloists get to shine throughout this work: Did he really take the piccolo there? Can an oboe even do that? The put-upon snare drummer impressively began the piece with the softest playing I’ve ever heard onstage and supported everyone unwaveringly throughout. By the time we reached the raucous climax, the orchestra had delivered on its promise of an evening tuneful, emotional, and exciting. And on the way out, I made sure to look at the patrons leaving the auditorium. By now everyone was arm-in-arm.