SCHENECTADY — The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra ended its 82nd season Sunday afternoon at Proctors performing two glories from the standard repertoire and two unusual pieces that featured Niskayuna native percussionist James Benoit.
Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia” (1900) and his Symphony No. 2 in D Major (1903) are considered Finnish nationalistic protests against then-Russian tyranny, but they are lush, wonderfully melodic and use the orchestra in a supremely skilled and colorful way.
The brass section was in fine fettle to open “Finlandia” with a dark, robust sound. As the rest of the orchestra joined, slowly warming up, music director Charles Schneider kept an even pace to get a dramatic reading from everyone. The energy level was good; the dynamic range was effective and the balances were excellent.
Benoit soloed in Emmanuel Sojourne’s Concerto for Vibraphone (1999). It was his SSO debut as well as the first time he and the orchestra had ever performed the work. The piece showed off his instrument, which has metal bars whose sound can be sustained through the use of a pedal and can change based on the type of mallet used. It’s a tricky piece in two movements but written so well that Benoit never had problems being heard. Although classical in style, it had a heavy jazz inflection.
Benoit is a skillful player and projected a very relaxed manner, as if he were playing a club date. In the first dreamy and mystical movement, he used two cello bows scrapped over the edge of the metal bars to create eerie tones. The music ambled along through pretty scenery with very pretty melodies on the vibe supported only by repeated rhythmic motifs in the orchestra. The second feistier movement allowed Benoit to use some snappy technique in more chromatic, rhythmic music.
The small orchestra did well enough, although more performances would have tightened things up. That was also true for Milhaud’s short Concerto for Percussion (1929-30). Benoit played several different drums, cymbals, ratchet, triangle and other instruments very well. It’s amazing how different they all sounded.
The full orchestra pulled together to finish with the Sibelius Symphony. Tempos were good although more drive in the first movement would have heightened the drama. But Schneider astutely built climaxes in the gorgeous finale as everyone played their hearts out. The strings swooned, the brass were stalwart and the woodwinds sang. The audience cheered.