The Tacoma Symphony has decided to do a couple of its season concerts in the Rialto Theater every year – and it’s an excellent decision. Yesterday’s concert of Chopin, Barber and Mendelssohn, with an appetizer of Michael Torke’s “Ash,” showed beyond doubt that this chocolate-box Tacoma theater highlights every minute of effort an orchestra puts in, unlike the acoustically dead Pantages, and the TSO made the most of the space with a richness of sound that made most of the program shine.
Most, that is. Unfortunately, the Torke sounded more like an under-rehearsed piece that nobody was terribly convinced with. It didn’t help that the 15-minute, stream-of-thought 1991 piece that sounds a bit like minimalist Beethoven (if you can imagine that) followed around 12 minutes of talk from executive director Andy Buelow and artistic director Harvey Felder. But even without the explanations, this piece should leap brilliantly off the stage, instead of lurching around with mediocre dynamics and messy rhythms. The band did better with the chirpy Copland-esque middle section, with some nice work from oboes and bassoons, but with Felder failing to bring out the subtleties of the back-and-forth motifs and the orchestra not together, this piece was a disappointment, especially when you consider how long TSO audiences have to wait to hear a contemporary work.
But with the rest of the program, the ensemble redeemed itself. It offered a confident tutti for Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2, played with fluid vocality by Seattle pianist Regina Yeh, and gave her a rich, warm blanket on which to lay her gracious phrases underlaid with rapid-fire intensity. This was no mealy-mouthed Chopin, but a fiercely ardent Polish one, Yeh building each section onto the next with implacable logic and flawless virtuosity. In the second movement she connected the tender melody with gossamer threads of delicate passegiata, and in the third she danced over the leaps, scales and arpeggios with the ever-beautiful grace of a ballerina, never over-stated, and thoroughly deserving the standing ovation and armful of flowers given by an enthusiastic audience.
After this the orchestra went from strength to strength. Despite a static hesitancy in the melody, Barber’s Adagio shimmered with a heavenly sound, with warm basses and a perfect pianississimo ending. And Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony showed an orchestra and conductor at their most confident: the joyful triplet melody of the first movement bright and neat, Felder playful and bringing out the singing woodwind/horn calls. He kept the tempo moving but steady in the tiptoeing second movement, delicate in the third, with the tuttits smoothly calm and well-balanced; and the final saltarello was light, fast and precise. A rich, sturdy bass section combined well with insistent timpani to underline the whole sound in this responsive acoustic – it would be lovely to hear this orchestra in this theater all the time.
The Tacoma Symphony Orchestra’s next concert is “Hollywood’s Greatest Melodies” at 2:30 p.m. March 25 at the Pantages Theater. 253-591-5894, www.tacomasymphony.org