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The Akron Symphony says it wants to get closer to its listeners. Saturday night, it made good strides in that direction. The 2008-09 season opened at E.J. Thomas Hall with a fabulous young violinist and numerous creative updates to the way the orchestra handles concert night.
The team of Music Director Christopher Wilkins and Executive Director Margo Snider has built up momentum over recent months, and their efforts paid off with an evening that was both satisfying and, in small but important ways, unpredictable.
I didn't go to the pre-concert dinner (a new event this year), but dropped in on the pre-concert talk by Wilkins. Audiences vote with their feet. The consistently high attendance at Wilkins' talks suggests that people enjoy the engaging way he speaks about the composers and the music, illustrating examples at the piano for emphasis.
Instead of the usual routine of starting the season with the national anthem, Wilkins began the concert with the Festival Overture on the American National Air by Dudley Buck (1839-1909). Toward the end of the work, which weaves the famous anthem throughout it, Wilkins gestured to the audience to stand and sing along.
I had high expectations for the evening's guest violinist, Stefan Jackiw, after hearing him solo with the Cleveland Orchestra last season. He met them. Jackiw was both coolly elegant and warmly communicative - a combination that is exceedingly rare - in the Sibelius Violin Concerto. His tone is remarkable: pliant, sweet and muscular, all at once. (When Jackiw appeared at the new Talk Back after the concert, he told the audience he plays a violin that Vincenzo Ruggieri made in 1704 in Cremona, Italy.)
The orchestra was in its element playing with Jackiw, who was the most attentive of partners. There's nothing like a soloist who listens closely to bring out the best from an orchestra. Despite a few incidents of slightly loose ensemble, the musicians played with a keen understanding of Sibelius' poignancy. After a standing ovation, Jackiw gave us a gorgeous performance of the austere Largo movement from J.S. Bach's Sonata in C Major.
Wilkins, in his third season at the Akron Symphony, brings valuable connections to his job after years in the business. Both he and Jackiw are former members - at different times - of conductor Benjamin Zander's youth orchestra in Boston. Jackiw is now on the fast track, so it helps to have Wilkins do the inviting. At the Talk Back, Wilkins (joined onstage by concertmaster Alan Bodman and principal clarinet Kristina Belisle) wasted no time in asking Jackiw what he planned to play ''next time.'' Listening in the audience, and asking questions, were about 75 patrons eager to stay after the concert ended at 10:15 p.m.
The evening opened with Barber's heartfelt Overture to The School for Scandal and closed with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, one of the most popular pieces in the Romantic literature. Wilkins' relaxed tempos in the slow movements urged the orchestra to savor every minute. The low brass and horns had especially good nights. The performance, and the concert overall, made a promising start to the season.