By Ann Haley
Our first concert of the season offered a beautiful variety in three important musical works: Mikhail Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla, a 2016 composition by Noah Bendix-Blagley called A Klezmer Concerto, and Gustav Mahler’s 4th Symphony, which featured soprano Megui Zhang singing the celestial and final movement of this work.
Sunday afternoon’s performance at the Mello Auditorium contained so many historical elements of music dating from pre-Christian times to the present, that I felt as though we had been experiencing Music from the Source: from earliest times to the most modern klezmer music, from folk music based in the Jewish tradition to religious music that evolved from the temporal world to the celestial. All of this was performed flawlessly by our orchestra and soloists conducted by Daniel Stewart, who, of course, conducted without a score, so that he could devote his attention to the soloists as well as to every section of the orchestra. The result was stunningly splendid.
Fidl Fantazye was orchestrated by a living composer: Samuel Adler, who gave the work a rich texture using all sections of the orchestra. He is regarded as highly today as Nicolai Rimski-Korsakov was as orchestrator in his own time. We received the truest interpretation possible of the Klezmer Concerto by its composer, violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley.
But to begin at the beginning: Glinka’s Overture to Ruslon and Ludmilla gave us a familiar theme-filled, bright, sprightly rousing opening to a richly musical program. The short, pretty, rhythmic piece underscored the advantages of a live performance over a recording: every instrument, including the timpani, truly popped. The short piece reminded us of every radio and television show we had heard decades ago, when romantic music themes were borrowed heavily by those media.
Noah Bendix-Balgley came onstage to play his own klezmer concerto, his technique smooth and sophisticated, the dancey melodies beautifully executed. He appeared to be enjoying himself immensely as he played variations on his own themes, extending them and ornamenting them, the tambourine percussion emphasizing their rhythm, as Bendix-Balgley ended the first movement with his own cadenza. Our program quoted his intentions in composing his klezmer work (another advantage of having a living composer), which held a medley of many Jewish traditional dances to which he applied his own original style and rendition. In the second movement, the composer quoted from Mahler’s 5th Symphony, which we will be hearing in its entirety at a future concert. The third and final movement of this lively concerto warmly emphasized the partnership and sharing of the concerto as the soloist traded off lively dance tunes with individual members of the orchestra. All in all, this was a charming experience. The audience gave him and the musicians a standing ovation, in genuine appreciation of his happy creation.
Following Intermission, Danny Stewart conducted the orchestra in Gustav Mahler’s 4th Symphony, which the composer had said traced a path from the temporal world to a celestial paradise, with the final movement being based on an earlier poem of Mahler’s and the earlier movements being written afterword. This interesting symphony began with a sleighbell motif that recurred throughout, and which added to the optimism of the entire work. Every orchestral section performed so well, from the sensuous violins and cellos to the French horns and woodwinds, the lovely harp, and percussion. The sleigh bells reminded me of a dogtrot, making me smile each time. Megui Zhang, the featured soprano in the fourth movement, dressed in a pale gold-sequined gown, presented her strong, rich, mature voice, beautifully melodic and controlled. I only wished that her part had been longer. She truly sang richly and with feeling.
A second standing ovation compellingly followed Mahler’s symphony, as Danny again shared accolades with Ms. Zhang and the orchestra members. This was truly an outstanding experience with music that combined so much pre-Christian and Christian heritage, that it can be described as Music from the Source. We have a chance to hear these wonderful performers again on October 27th and 28th. We’ll see you there.