IRIS kickoff bold, solid

Cho-Liang Lin
Memphis Commercial Appeal

By Jon W. Sparks

The IRIS Orchestra's eighth season kickoff performance marked a new beginning grounded in its traditional approach.

The Iris Orchestra Foundation earlier this year assumed funding of the enterprise that had been largely financed by the City of Germantown since its inception. That organizational move to independence is daring and still being cultivated, but Saturday night's concert at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre was a performance as solid and bold as any in the orchestra's previous seven years.

Maestro Michael Stern's selections were typically intriguing and varied and received warm responses from the near sellout crowd.

Barber's Violin Concerto (1939) was at the center of the program and featured Cho-Liang Lin as soloist. Lin was masterful, executing the passages with precision and clarity. The work itself is a bit odd as the first two movements are undistinguished and maudlin forays, solidly constructed but as forgettable as a small picture of a grand landscape. The third movement, however, is a rip-roaring journey as intellectually vigorous as the earlier movements were romantic mush.

The opening work was the evening's real attention grabber. Osvaldo Golijov's Last Round for Strings, composed in the 1990s, was a tribute to the work of tango master Astor Piazzolla, but it was no mere tango tarted up to sound good in an orchestral setting. It was, rather, a deliciously original composition with urgent dissonances constantly building up, taking a breath and then building up again. Most of the musicians were standing as it's done in a tango orchestra, facing each other across the stage to evoke the tension generated by dance partners.

Golijov, who descended from Russian Jews, was born in Argentina and has lived in Jerusalem and Brooklyn. That rich worldliness inhabits his work and has made him one of the planet's leading contemporary composers. You could hear it in the final moments of Last Round, where the frenetic brilliance moved into a disturbing resolution and ended on a note of exquisite tininess.

The final work was the Brahms Third Symphony (1882-83) and it's hard to imagine a finer combination of the cerebral with the passionate. Stern's admiration for the piece was clear. The four movements are solid as granite but permeated with humanity -- and IRIS sounded so good in the hall that it distributed chills up and down the collected spines.