Before the music began Saturday night, guest conductor Thomas Heuser thanked sponsors and musicians. He made a few remarks about each work on the program. Then he acknowledged the tragedy that took place in Paris the night before.
“Our hearts and minds are with those afflicted,” he said, and quoted Leonard Bernstein’s famous 1963 remarks after learning of John F. Kennedy’s assassination: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
Framing the concert as a response to violence, Heuser set the tone for an evening of intense, beautiful music.
How appropriate to begin with a work by a French composer. Maurice Ravel’s lilting Alborada del Gracioso opened with a lively string pizzicato and quickly bloomed into an orchestral garden of sound. Six percussionists kept the energy high with castanets, crisp snare passages and resounding rhythms on the timpani. After a sudden, full stop, bassoonist Denise Turner turned a musical corner with a plaintive motif. That passage set in motion another theme for the evening; it was a night for soloists.
Heuser, the second candidate for the symphony’s job of music director, made the most of Ravel’s suspenseful, often atmospheric, writing. And like Ravel’s orchestration of the final work on the program, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Heuser maximized the drama of contrasting phrases, complex coloration and those breathtaking stops.
Soloist Tim Fain joined the orchestra for Dvorák’s “Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53.” At the beginning, the orchestra’s big, brief introduction gave way to rising lines in the violin. A melancholic sweetness persisted through the first two movements. Seamlessly merged, they expressed suspenseful yearning. That changed abruptly after another full stop when the orchestra energetically launched into the fast, final movement. Fain’s virtuosity led the way in a playful romp, almost a chase.
After intermission, Heuser and his herald, trumpeter Marc Reed, announced Mussorgsky’s picturesque virtual tour of an art exhibition. Reed’s bright fanfare could wake up a sleeping sentry or a rare, dosing audience member.
The 10-movement work has five promenade sections that conjure a visitor walking through an art gallery. Originally created for piano, “Pictures” was based on Mussorgsky’s experience at a memorial exhibition for a friend, the now-largely-forgotten Viktor Hartmann. He died prematurely, and Mussorgsky composed the work as a tribute. Much later, Ravel orchestrated the complex work to brilliant effect.
An audience favorite, “Pictures” has been performed here before, but it should never be taken for granted. It’s a complex masterwork that could easily collapse long before its arrival at “The Great Gate of Kiev.”
Heuser and company strode through the musical exhibition with confidence. And when it was over, he rightfully acknowledged many of the soloists who deserved attention. They include: Katie Patton’s rolling, mournful alto saxophone in “The Old Castle;” Rochelle Mann’s playful flute in “The Tuileries” (speaking of Paris); William LaShell’s ringing chimes; and Joseph Walsh’s high tuba solo in the heavy-laden march where the music appears and disappears like an old oxcart on the road.
Kudos to all for the thrilling conclusion. “The Great Gate of Kiev” is one of the most intense musical experiences to be had in a concert hall. Saturday night, the Gate turned out to be a majestic, glimmering moment of power and beauty created by our regional orchestra. It was, indeed, a poignant response to the violence in the world.
email@example.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, art historian and arts journalist.