Music review: Albany Symphony hits its stride with Rachmaninoff after uneven start

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

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

ALBANY – The Albany Symphony Orchestra presented a Saturday concert at the Palace Theatre in a program of great variety but with sometimes uneven results.

They began with Duke Ellington’s Suite from “The River.” Commissioned in 1970 by the American Ballet Theatre for choreographer Alvin Ailey, Ellington wrote 12 movements of which Ailey only used seven. The ASO, however, only performed five of them. All of them were inspired by water or the course of a stream through various stages, such as a waterfall, a whirlpool or rapids.

For people familiar with Ellington’s jazz pieces, this work is entirely different. Only one of the movements, number three, would satisfy jazz fans with its harmonies, brass riffs, the use of a drum set and perky mood. As it happens, this movement was to depict “Giggling Rapids.”

The other movements, which were one, four, five and seven, were hugely different in style, harmony, color, tempo and everything else. The work opened with sweeping lines and dissonance for “Spring.” Four was an exotic “Lake” with basses, flutes, a cymbal smear, trombones against plucked cellos, maracas, and a pretty romantic melody that was very film score-ish. Five was a speedy, short “Vortex” with snare drum patters that rippled along. Seven had a brass choir that the strings then took up for “Village of the Virgins.”

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One can only imagine what Ailey did with the music, which seemed to create more a mood than something to dance to. The orchestra under music director David Alan Miller didn’t seem entirely comfortable, perhaps because there was little continuity within and among the segments.

Things flowed better in Joel Thompson’s “To Awaken the Sleeper,” which premiered in August 2021 in Colorado. Inspired by words written by James Baldwin over a span of years from 1970 to 1986, the work required a narrator, which Thompson provided from memory. The texts he chose are amazingly timely and thoughtful about race, democracy, migrants in the halls of justice, and the need for a new morality.

The music ranged from a loud chaos to lyrical settings. For the most part, Thompson’s resonant baritone came through. The orchestra sounded good. The audience responded with cheers, whistles and a standing ovation from many.

It was, however, in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” that the orchestra hit its stride. They were fabulous in this incredibly difficult three-movement work, which Rachmaninoff wrote in 1941. It was his last composition and a marvelous masterpiece. The part writing, which was exceptionally clear, was inspired and beautiful. His use of color, rhythm, his signature romantic lyricism with melodies that stay in one’s ear, even the moods were glowing.

Miller conducted with passion and precision. There was an exuberance even from the players, who were challenged by the parts and dug in.

Each movement had its own language. In the first, after a vigorous, rhythmic number of bars from the entire orchestra, the woodwinds took over alone. In an inspired choice, Rachmaninoff had a saxophone as the melodic lead in a gentle flowing melody before the strings took it up.

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The second movement was a seductive waltz with swirling reeds, a sensuous English horn solo with light strings, and Miller coaxing and urging the tempos through the composer’s unexpected moments.

The finale was all color and vibrancy as it sped along to a forceful end. The crowd loved it as did Miller, who worked his way around the entire orchestra praising each section.

On Dec.10 and 11, it’s the holiday classics in Troy with Bach, Mozart and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson.

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