Review: Lexington Philharmonic opening night

After a week of making headlines with contract negotiations and the threat of a strike, the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra got down to making music Friday night at the University of Kentucky Singletary Center for the Arts.

Violinist Caroline Goulding performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto at the Lexington Philharmonic's opening night concert. © Photo by Liza Mazzucco.

Violinist Caroline Goulding performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto at the Lexington Philharmonic’s opening night concert. © Photo by Liza Mazzucco.

More than a year of negotiations came to a boil this week as musicians threatened to abandon the season opener if they and the orchestra’s management couldn’t reach an agreement by showtime. But they did, coming together on an arrangement that guaranteed Friday’s concert and the rest of the 2013-14 season.

It would have been a crying shame to have lost this season-opening spectacular.

There tension did not seem to spill over to the stage, but the concert did illustrate one of the disagreements between the orchestra directors and musicians.

Since the arrival of Scott Terrell, who was opening his fifth season as the Philharmonic’s music director Friday, he has tried to program more contemporary pieces that frequently require smaller ensembles, while musicians have been lobbying for more traditional masterworks that often call for full complements of musicians.

Friday’s concert had both new and traditional fare, chiefly a new revision of a recent work by composer-in-residence Adam Schoenberg (which actually called for the largest ensemble of the evening) and Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, a work the orchestra has played numerous times in recent decades, most recently on the final concert by longtime music director George Zack in 2008.

It actually had a more recent history on the Singletary Center stage, played there last September by Itzhak Perlman with the UK Symphony.

If you saw that performance and were in the hall Friday night for 21-year-old Caroline Goulding’s rendition, you saw a nice contrast in interpretations.

While Perlman has internalized the piece so thoroughly he played it like he was breathing it, Goulding clearly had to work at it. But she worked it in thrilling fashion, seeming to delight in digging into Tchaikovsky’s high-wire solo passages and vigorously engaging Terrell and the orchestra throughout the performance, renewing the concerto’s reputation as a truly collaborative work.

It also showed that you don’t even to be a time-tested veteran to have something to say with this masterpiece. (After all, Goulding isn’t even the youngest to play it with the Phil, as Lexington violin phenom Alyssa Park played it in 1990, when she was 17.)

In contrast, everyone on stage Friday was getting their first crack at Schoenberg’s American Symphony, a piece he told the audience he wrote because he believed it was his “civic duty” to write something beautiful in the wake of 21st-century historic moments including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the historic presidential election of 2008. It was commissioned and premiered by the Kansas City Symphony in 2011.

Schoenberg also drew inspiration from Aaron Copland, which was apparent from the opening moments that drew together urban and Western motifs to seemingly illustrate the diversity of America. The Symphony occasionally meandered, particular early in the final movement, and there were dynamic issues at moments that muddied the piece. But there were genuinely thrilling, revelatory passages. It was also a percussion smorgasbord, giving James Campbell and his crew ample opportunity to show their chops. While it was contemporary, American Symphony was also big, with more than 70 musicians on stage.

It gave us something to look forward to in April, when Schoenberg unveils a new piece, commissioned by the Philharmonic. American Symphony‘s next stop is the Atlanta Symphony.

The evening was bookended by Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Both benefited from the youthful energy of the night, the 1812 being a thrilling moment of watching the players dig in to the final bars. One quibble was with the cannons, whose fire famously comes at the climax of the piece. The Philharmonic used recorded cannons, which sounded weak next to the live musicians on stage.

If there was acrimony between the players and Terrell, who was slapped with a no-confidence vote from the players this week, it was invisible on stage. Everyone seemed to relish the night — or they should go into acting.

The audience was exceedingly supportive, giving Terrell a standing ovation when he stepped on stage and even giving Goulding a standing O after the first movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto — applause after the first is traditional, but the standing is not.

For all involved, the evening seemed cathartic.

It’s a shame we have to wait until November for a follow up. Recent seasons, the Philharmonic has not scheduled October concerts, billing it as education month, which is admirable. But after such an exhilarating night, the audience wants more, and saying “see you in November” isn’t satisfying. But when the audience wants more, that is a good problem.

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