The Albany Symphony Orchestra opened its 82nd season Saturday night at the Palace Theatre with a program that thrilled the romantic shoes of the huge crowd.
The orchestra under Musical Director David Alan Miller never sounded better.
The concert began with the world premiere of Ted Hearne’s sly “Erasure Scherzo.” He told the crowd to have fun with his piece, which was aptly named — Scherzo means joke in Italian and “Erasure” meant several bars of music would suddenly disappear and Miller would be conducting but all would be silent. When the music was being played, it was either busy with repetitive motifs or very classical, almost Beethovian.
There were a tad too many empty moments and classical bars, while very tuneful, were not long enough. It will be interesting if the work gets more hearings. One definitely needs to be in on the “joke” to appreciate Hearne’s skills.
However, the audience didn’t have to think too much with Rachmaninoff’s ever popular Piano Concerto No. 2 with the stunning Valentina Lisitsa, who made a triumphant debut. Known to 30 million YouTube viewers for her championing of classical music, Lisitsa played with strong statements, sculpted the famous melodies with tenderness and eloquence and knocked off the brilliantly virtuosic technical sections with great flair.
After setting a brisk tempo in the opening movement, Miller kept the orchestra well balanced. Lisitsa was very polished and unsentimental. With such a quick pace, she was able to keep the arch of the music moving forward with strong pacing and musically sensitive nuances. The orchestra maintained a warm tone, and Miller didn’t hesitate to make expansive gestures.
The second movement was gently phrased and tranquil and set up the brilliant finale. Lisitsa was light fingered and very clear and sang the melodies well in a traditional tempo. Miller encouraged the cello section to shine here. The crowd roared with approval, whistling and leaping to its feet with exuberant applause.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor is the height of romance and a huge orchestral workout. Coincidentally, it is the piece Miller auditioned with 20 years ago to get the job he still holds. The musicians had a very robust tone and played with a high level of ensemble. There was strong continuity among the sections and phrase connections were smooth. Miller pushed them in the first movement for more, set a great pace and got solid balance between the brass and the remainder of the orchestra.
But the slow second movement with all the wind solos needed more of a chamber music level of listening. Too often, they sounded isolated from each other. Miller built the climaxes well, although the heavy pulses tended to be more vertical then forward directed and he exaggerated the ritards. The waltz was charming, if a bit slow; but the finale had all the glory and sturm und drang needed.
A few notes: Lisitsa donated her fee to the orchestra; and Vanguard, the orchestra’s volunteer organization, presented a check for $50,000 in honor of its 50th anniversary. Miller also told the crowd that a record number of subscribers have signed up.
The symphony’s next performance is a program of Haydn, Corigliano and Bach with Albany Pro Musica on Oct. 13 and 14.