Playing a program of magic-themed music, the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra spun an enchanting web of lyrical and unified music last Saturday night, despite the less-than-magical acoustics of Tacoma’s Pantages Theater. Soloist Maria Bachmann, expressive on violin, was also the catalyst for some of the most interesting music the orchestra has played in a while.
Themed “Enchanted Symphony,” the concert tied together four mostly Russian works all dealing in some way with the mysterious or supernatural, and all used in film scores as well. Opening the show was Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” the Halloween-ish piece about a witches’ Sabbath. Inevitably calling up those famous images from the animated movie “Fantasia,” where the music describes a looming demon scooping up maniacal followers, the orchestra played with energy, featuring some beautifully simple clarinet and flute solos and lyrical violins at the quiet, redemptive end. The only thing marring the performance was the absolutely dead acoustics of the Pantages – this is the only stage in town big enough for the full orchestra and its audience, but with its trick of swallowing every resonance and note-decay it makes the Mussorgsky, so replete with dramatic chords and silences, about as magical as a door slam.
Then came Maria Bachmann, and with her one of the most musically and emotionally challenging pieces the orchestra has done in a while: the Chaconne from John Corigliano’s film score to “The Red Violin.” As in the 1998 movie that he worked so closely with, the reworked 2003 Chaconne is full of pain, dissonance and unease, describing a violin cursed by untimely death. Bachmann lived up to her reputation as a preeminent interpreter of this neo-Romantic work: Despite a small-ish sound (also not helped by the theater’s acoustics), she played extremely expressively through both sweeping melodies and virtuosic challenges like Bach-partita double stops and rapid-fire runs. Her high register was both eerie and passionate, luring the orchestra to its own emotional heights as it followed director Harvey Felder through a colorful soundscape. Felder’s brief musical notes beforehand, with aural examples, were a helpful touch for those unfamiliar with the piece or style.
After interval came Shostakovich’s suite from “The Gadfly,” a Soviet movie about a mysterious writer. Set in Italy, the score is unabashedly light-hearted, and the TSO romped through the Rossini-esque gallops and Puccini-esque melodies with a tight, balanced sound. Concertmaster Svend Rønning gave a pleasant, honest rendering of the famous violin solo in the Romance.
But the evening’s highlight was the magic of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” suite (1919 version). After a messy opening the orchestra settled into a shimmering, dramatic performance of this beloved fairy-tale work, with shy bassoon solo in the Berceuse, forceful marimba in the Infernal Dance and Felder holding the whole architecture together from dreamy slowness to swift syncopation, the whole orchestra bathed in a red-orange light that added to the enchantment.
The Tacoma Symphony Orchestra’s next concert will be “Bach, Copland and Schumann” at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 20 at the Rialto Theater, Tacoma. 253-272-7264, www.tacomasymphony.org.