Review: Lexington Philharmonic presents old and new classics with youthful vigor

Pianist Lucille Chung performed Beethoven's Emperor Concerto at the Lexington Philharmonic's Feb. 17 concert. Photo from lucillechung.com.

Program notes at orchestra concerts almost always tell you where a work was premiered, usually well over a century ago, and we can only imagine what it was like to be there and here a work by, say, Ludwig Van Beethoven or Franz Schubert for the first time.

For the classical music fan, the experience of hearing a fresh new work can seem like something for generations past as we now just take in museum pieces.

That is changing though in Lexington, and Friday night’s Lexington Philharmonic concert was the biggest evidence yet that this is becoming a community interested in hearing new classical works by composers who are still with us, sometimes even in the same room. Commissions and world premieres have been rolled out by other organizations in Lexington, notably by the University of Kentucky’s ensembles and the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington.

But it is a powerful statement when the area’s flagship arts organization says it is going to prioritize new music and perform it on its major concert series.

Friday night we were treated to the world premiere of Daniel Kellogg‘s How Radiant the Dawn, and the operative word there is treat. The piece, the first in the Philharmonic’s Saykaly Garbulinska Composer-in-Residence program, is Kellogg’s musical interpretation of the sunrise. He said in Thursday night’s Kicked Back Classics event, a prelude to Friday’s concert, that it wasn’t a programatic piece, but it was easy to see it that way.

Dawn opened with fluttering flutes that recessed into a steady tone before resuming flight. Soon, other colors were streaking across a developing meoldy, somewhat discordant but working toward a blazing unity. Among the many pieces of Kellogg’s sunrise were moments like a glissando in the lower strings, like birds crossing the horizon, and a short violin solo by Daniel Mason that was reminiscent of the orange shaft of sunlight that fired across pink clouds Wednesday morning.

Soon the sun was up, and we were in Gershwin’s bustling city or Copland’s west, Kellogg’s marriage of lush strings and proud brass giving this a distinctly American feel.

It is a testament to the new found depth of the Philharmonic in Scott Terrell’s third season as music director that they carried off Kellogg’s work highlighting the nuances and colors of this piece which could have easily dissolved into a gloss of sound. Part of Kellogg’s technique is layer upon layer of sound, and we came away from this performance feeling we had heard every flicker of light, though it is a piece that should reward repeated listenings.

The audience got a preview of this depth in the orchestra’s spirited performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, the “Unfinished” symphony, that opened the concert.

Almost forgotten in all this new music hoo-ha was the fact that pianst Lucille Chung was also on this program to play, oh, only one of the greatest works of piano literature: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor.” Chung made sure our forgetfulness ended the moment her fingertips touched the ivories. Hey, new music is great, but this has been great for almost 201 years.

The thing is, in Chung and Terrell’s hands, Beethoven’s masterpiece didn’t sound much older than Kellogg’s minutes old work. The orchestra and soloist played with light touches and, perhaps most importantly, seemed engaged in the kind of collaboration we usually associate with chamber music. Chung bounced and bobbed on the bench during the Philharmonic’s turns, and Terrell and the musicians were attentive to Chung’s solo passages. Emperor often feels as heavy as it’s name, but this was sprite and didn’t feel anywhere near as long as its symphony length.

Friday night’s headline is that the Philharmonic premiered a new work. The real story is that new or old, the orchestra made classical music feel relevant and vibrant.

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