After a week of making headlines with contract negotiations and the threat of a strike, the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra got down to making music Friday night at the University of Kentucky Singletary Center for the Arts.
More than a year of negotiations came to a boil as musicians threatened to abandon the season opener if they and the orchestra's management couldn't reach an agreement by showtime. But they did, coming together on an arrangement that guaranteed Friday's concert and the rest of the 2013-14 season.
It would have been a crying shame to have lost this season-opening spectacular.
Tension did not seem to spill onto the stage, but the concert did illustrate one of the disagreements between the orchestra directors and musicians.
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Scott Terrell, who opened his fifth season as the Philharmonic's music director Friday, has tried to program more contemporary pieces that frequently require smaller ensembles, while musicians have been lobbying for more traditional masterworks that often call for full complements of musicians.
Friday's concert had both new and traditional fare, chiefly a revision of a recent work by composer-in-residence Adam Schoenberg (which actually called for the largest ensemble of the evening) and Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, which the orchestra has played numerous times in recent decades.
The work also was performed on the Singletary Center stage last September by Itzhak Perlman with the UK Symphony. If you saw that performance and were in the hall Friday night for 21-year-old Caroline Goulding's rendition, you heard a nice contrast in interpretations.
While Perlman has internalized the piece so thoroughly he played it like he was breathing it, Goulding clearly had to work at it. But she worked it in thrilling fashion, seeming to delight in digging into Tchaikovsky's high-wire solo passages and vigorously engaging Terrell and the orchestra throughout the performance, renewing the concerto's reputation as a truly collaborative work.
In contrast, everybody on stage Friday was getting their first crack at Schoenberg's American Symphony, a piece he told the audience he wrote because he believed it was his "civic duty" to write something beautiful in the wake of 21st-century historic moments including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 presidential election. It was commissioned and premiered by the Kansas City Symphony in 2011.
Schoenberg also drew inspiration from Aaron Copland, which was apparent from the opening moments that drew together urban and Western motifs to seemingly illustrate the diversity of America. The Symphony occasionally meandered, particularly early in the final movement, and dynamic issues at times muddied the piece. But there were genuinely thrilling, revelatory passages. It was also a percussion smorgasbord, giving James Campbell and his crew ample opportunity to show their chops. While it was contemporary, American Symphony was also big, with more than 70 musicians on stage.
It gave us something to look forward to in April, when Schoenberg unveils a new piece, commissioned by the Philharmonic. American Symphony's next stop is the Atlanta Symphony.
The evening was bookended by Dmitri Shostakovich's Festive Overture and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Both benefited from the youthful energy of the night. One quibble was with the cannons, whose fire famously comes at the climax of the 1812 Overture. The Philharmonic's recorded cannons sounded weak next to the live musicians on stage.
If there was acrimony between the players and Terrell, who was slapped with a no-confidence vote from the players this week, it was invisible on stage. Everyone seemed to relish the night — or they should go into acting.
The audience was exceedingly supportive, giving Terrell a standing ovation when he stepped on stage and even giving Goulding a standing O after the first movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto — applause after the first movement is traditional, but the standing is not.
For all involved, the evening seemed cathartic.
It's a shame we have to wait until November for a follow-up. Saying "see you in November" isn't satisfying. But when the audience wants more, that is a good problem.