The Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra ended its regular season Friday night with an uneven concert conducted by its music director Scott Terrell. A performance of Beethoven’s iconic Symphony No. 5, one of the most familiar monuments of Western art music, was touted as the evening’s main event, but was plagued by both ensemble and balance issues. On the other hand, the orchestra played beautifully when accompanying guest organist Paul Jacobs in the relatively unfamiliar Organ Symphony No. 1 by Felix-Alexandre Guilmant.
Jacobs played the three-movement work with astounding virtuosity and convincing musicality. He continually treated the audience to inventive, colorful registrations on the organ, sometimes choosing several distinct combinations of stops for several phrases in a row, and performed with a real showman’s panache. The orchestra responded with vigor, alternately blending and contrasting its timbres with the myriad organ sonorities concocted by Jacobs. The second movement was a particularly lovely pastorale, giving the Philharmonic’s woodwinds plenty of opportunity for gorgeous lyricism, especially flutist Pei-San Chiu. The third movement built to a magisterial finale, with the orchestral brass supplementing the organ’s full open pipes to thrilling effect.
Jacobs received a vociferous ovation, and graciously offered a substantial encore, which was nothing short of magnificent.
By contrast, the Philharmonic seemed out of kilter throughout the Beethoven. As soon as he had gained the stage after intermission, Terrell abruptly began the symphony, seeming to rush through the opening motivic statement of the famous “fate knocking at the door” theme. The tempo never seemed settled after that, a tension that lingered throughout the subsequent movements. Entrances were not tight. Isolated gestures stuck out. Certain passages rushed. Nor did the orchestral voices balance as well as they usually do, often overwhelming inner parts and occasionally even allowing accompaniment figures to drown out the melody. In short, it was a rather perfunctory performance of Beethoven’s Fifth, an adequate reading, but under-realized. It was nice to hear the work live, but it didn’t pack its usual powerful wallop due to the unfocused rendering of the musical score.
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The concert began with a peculiar American work, Lollapalooza by minimalist composer John Adams. The bumptious piece offers a herky-jerky energy offset by piquant harmonies, but it was hard to discern any true melody. The Philharmonic’s performance seemed precise, but they took a very full, legato approach to this bouncy music, whereas more rhythmic incisiveness might have helped sell it better. But as a concert-starter, it did its job — all it really needed was a tune.
So what have we learned from this concert? Certainly, great masterpieces are not to be underestimated, and lesser-known works are not to be ignored. Sometimes the beauty of live performance derives from taking the measure of civilization’s greatest art works, even if one falls a bit short. And sometimes it comes from the surprise of encountering an unfamiliar piece, offered with sterling musicianship and compelling interpretation. Both signs of living art were evident in the Lexington Philharmonic’s season finale.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay is a musicologist, pianist and voice coach at the University of Kentucky.