21 November 2010
The opening night concert’s unevenness was nowhere to be found in the Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s performance last Friday of a string-heavy program billed as “Tchaikovsky and Friends” featuring works of Tchaikovsky, Higdon, and Bruch.
The Tucson premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral” (conventionally spelled without initial capitals) opened the night’s program. Dedicated jointly to the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Curtis Institute of Music and to the memory of her younger brother Andrew Blue Higdon, “blue cathedral” is a sometimes dazzling weave of instrumental solos and the occasional brass fanfare in fortissimo passages over a background of percussive tintinnabulation–bells, chimes, tambourine, and a prepared piano replicated in Tucson with a digital keyboard–and the sometimes eerie ringing of glass harmonica played by brass players on double-duty and Chinese reflex balls played by any musician with a temporarily free hand. A work with so much color and soloing can be especially challenging to a small orchestra, but the TSO’s performance was a success.
One only wishes that composer Higdon would have done more to guide the listener through the piece. Surely the piece had structure, including return to certain harmonic intervals and even a few repeated motifs, and the alternation of contemplative and sometimes discordant passages with triumphant, synchronized, harmonious ones does indeed reflect the learning process, the composer’s stated motivation, but without so much as a hint of traditional development for the listener to follow it is difficult to call “blue cathedral” anything more than “ambient” music, albeit the best of that genre and surprisingly a delight to hear performed live despite the tediousness of available recordings. Despite this, the piece was better received by the Tucson audience than Higdon’s more accessible “Concerto 4-3” was by Phoenix last year.
A return to more conventional work followed the performance of Higdon. Guest violin soloist Alexander Sitkovetsky joined the orchestra for a performance of Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, an orchestral setting of several Scottish folk melodies including the tune of unofficial Scots national anthem Scots Wha Hae. At a few points it was difficult to hear the soloist above the orchestra–the decision should have been made to leave a couple of violins and perhaps a cello and a viola out of this one–but the performance was solid and the TSO once again showed its almost chamber-like responsiveness to soloists. A standing ovation brought Sitkovetsky back to the stage to play a solo work of Bach.
Two crowd-pleasing works of Tchaikovsky, the Romeo and Juliet Overture and the Capriccio Italiano, followed the intermission. The performance was solid and benefited from music director George Hanson’s good taste: there was none of the bombast that can sometimes weight down performances of Romeo and Juliet, and the strings were warm enough to melt the ice on the Santa Cruz. All in all, it was a great night for the TSO, and it’s good to see that opening night missteps weren’t a signal of a bad season.