Music review: Symphony immerses audience in diverse program

The Albany Symphony Orchestra under music director David Alan Miller presented a very diverse progra

The Albany Symphony Orchestra under music director David Alan Miller presented a very diverse program Saturday night at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall that included a premiere and featured two eminent soloists.

The program began with the premiere of an expanded version of Missy Mazzoli’s “Violent, Violent Sea.” Mazzoli, who is this season’s composer/educator, told the capacity crowd that she wanted to immerse the listeners. She did just that with lines that slipped in and out like fluid currents and colors that were like sunbeams filtering through the water. The vibraphone, marimba and celeste played almost continuously as background and were like glistening schools of fish. Mazzoli’s sea wasn’t violent but her orchestration gave depth. The orchestra sounded terrific.

Ann Hobson Pilot, long-time principal harpist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra until her retirement in 2009, was the soloist in John Williams’ “On Willows and Birches,” which he wrote for her. Playing from memory, she began the first movement delicately with soft tinklings that sounded mysterious. The strings picked up the support as Pilot shifted to lovely glissandos and shimmery melodies that were meant to evoke wind through the trees. The second movement was much livelier, with a jaunty mood. Pilot strongly marked pulses and meters. Williams skillfully gave the harp plenty of room to be heard, so balances were rarely an issue. The dynamic level, too, was more subdued.

Pianist Orion Weiss was the expert soloist in Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1924). The 27-piece band included most of the wind players, a timpanist and the string bass section. The work has a strange dissonance, not a typical polytonality, which made many of the notes in the opening bars sound “wrong.” But no, Stravinsky was up to his tricks to surprise and keep listeners off balance.

The band seemed a bit unsettled despite Miller’s precise direction, but Weiss was clearly at home. His part is very tricky with its syncopation, heavy rhythmic emphasis and multi-meters. But Weiss, who also played from memory, whipped it off without a stumble. His tone and technique were clear. He kept the pedal to a minimum, and he caught the sardonic yet ebullient spirit of the piece. The audience seemed to like it and gave a standing ovation and several curtain calls.

After all these perhaps strange and different sounds, Miller shrewdly programmed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major (1813), one of his most joyously lyrical works. Miller set good tempos and some levels of dynamics, but he allowed the orchestra to play out without regard to balances, nuance or substance. If it wasn’t the top strings overwhelming the reeds, it was the French horns or brass blowing away everyone else. Consequently, except at softer volumes, the orchestra tended to sound heavy rather than buoyant. Whatever happened to ensemble playing? Musicians need to listen to each other.

The next ASO concert is Dec. 17 with violinist Joshua Bell.

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