Symphony hits it right on Saturday

09.23.12
David Alan Miller
Albany Times Union

By Priscilla McLean

The Albany Symphony presented a stunning concert to a packed house Saturday evening. It began with a startlingly-different work called "Erasure Scherzo" by new composer-educator partner Ted Hearne. Only five minutes long, it had a memorable beginning with a repeating group of phrases somewhat in the style of Steve Reich. Then, suddenly, just as it was changing in length, the music stopped.

Conductor David Alan Miller kept conducting, waving his hands in the air while no one played, for several measures. When the music started again, it was completely different. This stop-and-start style, with little clips of music in different styles and centuries, reminded one of tuning in a radio. Somehow it all worked, and was quite hilarious yet musically done, a very tough thing to accomplish. Bravo to the orchestra for holding it all together with no discernible errors.

Valentina Lisitsa, the Ukranian-American soloist in Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor played flawlessly, if a bit under volume, not helped by the dead spot on the stage overhang. Rachmaninoff has such luxurious melodies and rich harmonies that one can fall into a trance. The second movement was powerful in its simple beauty, brought out by the fine performance of soloist and symphony.

The powerhouse of the evening was Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E minor. For this, the orchestra became a Russian ensemble, with strident upfront brass and soaring strings. The strings have become the strongest part of this orchestra – a vast improvement from 20 years ago – due to Miller's molding and shaping this ensemble. Miller conducts as if every phrase was the most important one in the music, his whole body and face becoming totally engaged as he dramatizes the musical lines. His tempos are also right on the mark. It is a pleasure to experience the growth of the Albany Symphony through the years due to this dedication. Furthermore, he conducted without a score.

Not everything was perfect, though, as the winds, especially the horn section, needed some work in their intonation at times and the woodwinds sometimes did not project very well. However, William Hughes aced the famous horn solo in the second movement, to great satisfaction.

Tchaikovsky's last movement, a combination of complex rhythms, changing moods and gorgeous culminating melody, was played with daring speed and audacity, creating intense excitement, and providing a fitting end to a successful concert.