It’s wonderful when music can spin webs of magic and fantasy that can make children of us all. On Saturday night at the Palace Theatre, the Albany Symphony Orchestra did just that for a large crowd with the help of New Zealand flutist Alexa Still and a host of rats and flute-playing children.
The feature was John Corigliano’s “Pied Piper Fantasy” (1982), a wonderfully theatrical concoction that involved 13 mostly young dancers from Darlene Myers’ Northeast Ballet Company as the rats and an adult as the Rat King. Then there were 14 young flutists and two young snare drummers as the children that Still, as the pied piper, leads away. The production included changes of lighting on the orchestra (for more mystery), the flutists marching down and up the aisles and the rats hopping and clawing their way across the stage.
Under conductor David Alan Miller, everything seemed to go off without a hitch. Still was dressed in a gold coat with huge red diamonds, black tights, black high boots and a red feathered cap. Her flute part was a tour-de-force and Still was remarkable as she played the almost 50-minute piece from memory.
Although she has performed the work so many times that she’s become almost identified with it, Still was almost casual as she walked about the stage, sometimes in soliloquy, or in battle with the rats. The work is written in seven continuous segments and Still played a tin whistle for the final two.
The music often floated in eerie and ethereal tones. Special effects such as bent notes, scratchy strings or string glissandos provided music that seemed to come out of the mist. The piper’s tune was often plaintive but when the action heated up, Still’s technique dazzled with frenzied technical passages and extreme high notes. There was a lot of brass in the battle scene and a Tudor-sounding march in the brightly celebratory section. The end of the piece was as it began with dim lights and eerie sounds. It was great stuff.
Neither Miller nor the orchestra had ever played the work, but they sounded comfortable in the music. Surprisingly, they were less at ease in William Walton’s Symphony No. 1 (1934). The first three movements had so much going on with unconventional resolutions, tonal shifts, complex rhythms, virtuosic technical demands, sudden bars of silence, and multiple voices that the orchestra was scrambling to hold on. The final movement, written much later, was clarity itself but still unconventional.