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Young stars shine in symphony season finale

El Paso Times

By Doug Pullen

I don't know if it was because it was the end of the season, the program they'd just played, the guest artist, the guest conductor or all of the above. But there sure were a lot of smiles on the faces of the audience and the musicians of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, which closed out its 79th season on a high note Saturday.

Make that a high C.

The note, typically sung by a tenor, was just one of the highlights in a program that was largely put together by conductor Sarah Ioannides, absent because of the impending birth of twins. It introduced a star in the making in young Mexican tenor Diego Silva, 21, and a rising star in young conductor Tito Munoz, 26, on loan from the from the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the so-called "Big Five" of American orchestras, where he is assistant conductor.

Clearly the futures of these musics, opera and classical, are in good hands if people like Silva and Munoz are typical of what we can expect.

The amiably handsome Silva, making his debut with a professional American orchestra, easily won over Saturday's audience, the beauty and power of his voice crystal clear in the Plaza Theatre, which has a tendency to flatten the symphony's sound. He sang five arias in all, two of which are commonly known, even to novice listeners like me, and two of which are zarzuelas, a Spanish form of opera.

A woman near me exclaimed "Oh my" when the kid with the long, curly black hair strolled out in his tux. I think she spoke for many females in the audience. The power of his voice spoke volumes, too, once he started singing "La donna e mobile," an aria from Verdi's "Rigoletto" that's often used in movies and TV commercials.

It was the second piece on the program, but the first aria, and it served as a good way to ease the audience of about 1,200 into what followed. "Che gelida manina," from Puccini's "La Boheme," another frequently heard aria, allowed the boyish tenor to glide fluidly and effortlessly over the cascading notes. He showed little sign of the nervousness or air conditioning-induced dryness that his mom, in from Mexico City (as was his dad; and family from El Paso and Juarez), said affected him Friday night.

Silva sang one other aria in the first half of the program, the less compelling "Lensky's Aria" from Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," then returned in the second half for the two zarzuelas, Serrano's soulful "La roca fria del Calario" from "La dolorosa" and Sorozabal's stirring "No Puede Ser" from "La taberna del Puerto."

These pieces, perhaps closer to his heart, inspired more passion and animation from the Curtis Institute of Music student, who not only earned a standing ovation after the latter, but sang it again for the encore (the orchestra performed a prelude from Wagner's "Lohengrin" as the encore Friday).

It was apparent from the crowd's enthusiastic response, and Silva's own beaming smile, that he can connect with an audience. He's got the vocal goods to go with the looks, though he did seem to struggle — and lacked the same kind of power — with the lower part of his range. But you can just feel that his voice is just going to get bigger and better.

I had the privilege of standing a few feet away from him at a post-concert reception, where he sang "O Solo Mio" with a string quartet from Coronado High School. It had to be a thrill for them. It was a short but magical moment for those who watched.

Ioannides knew what she was doing when she recruited the young (and inexpensive) tenor to strut his vocal stuff with the symphony. The impressive singer's performance certainly made an impression on the orchestra.

It seemed to be equally taken with Munoz, the young up-and-coming conductor who not only confidently guided the orchestra through the 10-piece program, but did it with an intense, unostentatious focus that looked like he was having a dialogue with the musicians without a hint of self-consciousness.

Munoz, a violinist who was enrolled in a Juilliard program as a teenager, is accomplished and confident enough to have tweaked the original program, dropping a Strauss waltz, moving Tchaikovsky's iconic "Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy" (if you've seen romantic movies or love-scene spoofs, you've heard it) from the beginning to the end, and adding overtures, preludes and interludes from operas by Verdi, Puccini and Tchaikovsky. Lara's "Granada" was a late scratch due to a problem with the arrangement.

The effect Saturday was a balanced mix of vocal and instrumental music, mostly from operas, that ended with a shimmering, sweeping take on the familiar but no less beautiful "Romeo and Juliet." The orchestra, particularly the violins and woodwinds, shone on the piece.

But the inclusion that may have better defined what Munoz brought to the mix was the Act I prelude from Wagner's "Lohengrin," a haunting, ethereal but obviously difficult piece, especially for the violins, who rose to the occasion. And that was just the beginning of the second half of the program.

By the end, when Silva returned to sing "No Puede Ser" again for the encore, there were big smiles in  the audience and on the stage. The original program and concept probably would have been plenty good, but there was something special about Saturday night's performance.

Well, two things actually. Those smiles could have been induced by the end of the 2009-10 season, but it was pretty obvious that the two young rising stars had a lot to do with all those happy faces.