Music review: Albany Symphony thrills audience with music, message

David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony at a past performance (photo provided)

David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony at a past performance (photo provided)

ALBANY — The Albany Symphony Orchestra was in top form Saturday night at the Palace Theatre in its first concert of the season. Not only did they thrill the large crowd with exceptional playing, but music director David Alan Miller’s repertoire choices were especially welcoming.

None more so than the first work on the program of Joel Thompson’s “An Act of Resistance.”

Thompson, who at 34 is the new composer-in-residence at Houston Grand Opera, told the audience this had been his first work for orchestra, which he wrote a few years ago, and that there were two themes to his piece: a martial one that represented selfishness and a lyrical one that was love.

How they connected in the end would be determined by the musicians themselves, who were asked to finish the piece.

Beginning with percussion setting march-like patterns and lower brass in ominous tones and growing volume, the mood shifted as strings played long lyrical lines of a lovely melody. Eventually they seemed to slowly merge and then stopped. Then members of the orchestra stood up and hummed a four-note motif from that melody until it quietly drifted away. The message: love was that act of resistance and the crowd got it.

They cheered, whistled, and stood up, applauding loudly.

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Up next was Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor (1869) and the debut of Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear. One of the most beloved works in the repertoire, the three movements are filled with light, wonderful springtime colors, a transparent level of orchestral writing that leaves plenty of space for the pianist to shine and show off. Everyone excelled. Miller kept careful balances and Goodyear let the music sing.

His phrasing was light, his technique in the numerous brilliant passages was facile. But he also did a lot of push and pull kind of phrasing that gave a tug to the lyricism. His cadenzas especially in the opening movement rippled like sparkling waterfalls. His second movement was a beautiful lullaby with the orchestra’s strings caressing the melodies beautifully. The finale danced and sped along with more grand technical displays from Goodyear.

The audience jumped to its feet, cheering. Miller brought Goodyear the requisite bouquet.

But Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 (1886) allowed the orchestra to dig in and boy, did they. They sounded strong, focused, showed terrific ensemble work and produced a vibrant warm and big sound that transfixed the crowd. Except for a cellphone going off prior to the beginning of the second movement — which Miller waited for before starting — the moods of the four movements that ranged from brooding and yearning to declamatory and celebratory were in plain view.

Miller, who worked without a score, conducted as if his heart were on his sleeve: passionate, determined, alert to every detail. It reminded everyone of the gift that a live music performance is and how lucky we are in the Capital District to have access to so much of it.

Tchaikovsky did not spare on ideas or challenging his players. His writing is always a workout. Miller set generally traditional tempos with a bit more pickup in speed here and there. The first movement flowed along with a good push to phrase climaxes. The second movement had wonderful balance among sections; the third, which was that marvelous waltz, was strong with great clarity and finesse.

In the finale, Miller did not allow the volumes to overwhelm — especially from the brass section, or to overdo the transitions. An exceptional effort from everyone and left the crowd very happy.

The next ASO concert is Nov. 12 at the Palace Theatre with Ellington’s Suite from “The River,” Philadelphia Orchestra tubist Carol Jantsch in John Williams’ concerto, and Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances.”

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