Music review: Albany Symphony, Cheng and McAllister in top form

David Alan Miller conducts the Albany Symphony in this file photo. (Gary Gold)

David Alan Miller conducts the Albany Symphony in this file photo. (Gary Gold)

TROY The Albany Symphony Orchestra’s season finale Saturday night at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall with music director David Alan Miller was a great success. Four excellent pieces were presented, all of them new and different, and all received glowing responses from the huge crowd.

This is, of course, not the last people will see of the orchestra in the next couple of weeks as they will be on the road concertizing, including a stop July 1 at Schenectady’s Mohawk Harbor to celebrate the Empire State Trail.

Up first was Gabriella Smith’s “Field Guide.” A committed environmentalist, she wanted to re-create the dawn chorus filled with bird song, wind through the rushes, frogs thunking and the wonder of a world awakening. She succeeded admirably. It was amazing how effective slapping fingerboards, a trombone downward glissando, wooden clicks from the percussion, slithering strings in a steady rhythm, and a flute trilling could bring this sound world alive. All this grew in intensity and then a brass choir entered like a golden glow as the sun’s rays hit the horizon.

In complete contrast was John Williams’ “Prelude and Scherzo” with pianist Gloria Cheng. Miller told the crowd that years ago pianist Lang Lang played the “Scherzo” in Shanghai but the short piece had never been performed since. Cheng discovered that and at her request and Miller’s, Williams agreed to write a Prelude. Initially, the two were premiered in Italy, so this was the American premiere.

Unlike anything you’d expect from Williams, it had no singable melodies, no huge buildups as in his film scores. Instead, the piano part was ruminating and thoughtful in the Prelude and percussive, pointellistic, and abstract in the Scherzo. The piano also almost worked separately from the orchestra, which was tonal with a lush orchestration. Cheng played the very difficult part with fire and the orchestra dug in with fervor.

Steven Stucky’s “Radical Light” was also a contrast in moods. Soon to be recorded, it is part of a Stucky CD of three of his works that the ASO will soon release. It was quite beautiful and even mystical and moved seamlessly from one landscape to another, which could be quite different. Initially, various woodwind solos commented against quiet strings and a chime then picked up with lighter, quicker motifs scattered about against long lines of mourning and deep brass choirs.

Stucky created a wonderful depth in the harmonic language that was punctuated with percussion effects. Everything flowed along with blurred louder tones, different instrumental effects, staggered tonalities to all end suddenly.

To finish the evening, John Corigliano’s “Triathlon for Saxophone and Orchestra” would be hard to beat. With Grammy-winning saxophonist Timothy McAllister playing soprano, tenor and baritone saxophone as the star, the piece is not only a tour de force for the saxophone but also for the orchestra.
Corigliano, who was present, told the crowd that the piece was new — only the second performance since it premiered with McAllister a few months ago — and that it “was a tricky piece.”

Although the three movements — McAllister used a different saxophone for each movement — had some of Corigliano’s trademark lyricism, it also had some of his devilishly difficult finger passages as well as sound effects like key clicks and slapping the tongue against the reed. Tempos were generally fast, furious and perpetual with the inner movement languid and cool.

The overall effect was buoyant, bold, funky, and very in-your-face confident. McAllister was primed for it and came dressed in casual black and white sneakers. As they say in jazz terms, he wailed on the part with great energy and Miller and the gang followed suit. Some of the licks the brass and percussion had to play got them standing ovations at the end.

The crowd almost uniformly jumped to its feet with “bravos” and cheers.

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