It seemed like the perfect combination for a season opening: a jazzy first half, a terrific pianist, a new piece and an ocean-themed centerpiece. But despite some impressive playing, the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra’s concert last Saturday in the Pantages was less thrilling than it might have been, thanks to Leon Bates’ relentless keyboard attack, some balance issues and Debussy’s “La Mer” falling a little short of opening-night grandeur.
All was well for the first piece, Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture,” which the TSO played with rhythmic aplomb (after an initial rockiness in the percussion) and a smooth big-band sound from the brass, although it would have been nice to hear the woodwinds more, including the subtle clarinet cadenza. This problem persisted through the evening into the wind-colored Debussy, and makes you wonder if putting winds and brass on more risers would help overcome the extreme deadness of the Pantages’ acoustic.
On to Bates, then, who plays just like the bodybuilding enthusiast he is: muscly tone, firm attack and meaty hands that could eat Gershwin concertos for breakfast. Throughout the jazz composer’s Concerto in F Bates delivered briskly on massive chords and carrying tone, though the runs were a little cloudy at times. The problem came when, after a few minutes, you realized that the percussive key attack and deadpan phrasing was going to continue exactly the same way all through the piece. Gershwin’s signature lightness of wit and toss-off jokes were quite absent, and even conductor Harvey Felder, who had guided the orchestra quite musically through the overture, made absolutely no attempt at the Hollywood-esque exaggerations of sweeping phrase and melodrama that these melodies and harmony sequences demand. The result, sadly, was a bland stretch of technical prowess, which you noticed even more when Bates suddenly flipped his musical switch into an encore of “I’ve Got Rhythm,” which sang, danced and swung in a totally different way.
After intermission Felder gave a nice explanation of the first of a series of pieces he’s planning to play during his last two years with the orchestra: new works that have only had one or two playings. Saturday’s was “Green Flash” by young American composer Roger Zare, and the TSO’s interpretation of this impressionistic homage to an oceanic phenomenon was marvelously atmospheric. Low double bass fifths crescendoed to spooky chords in viola and violin, with clouds of glissandi and seagull noises and woodwind chatter creating beautiful sound-painting coaxed out by Felder into a satisfying arc of sheer elemental power.
You’d think Debussy’s tone-poem “La Mer” (“The Sea”) would be ideal after this. But it’s not really a showcase work for an opening concert where folks expect fireworks or solid chestnuts. Unaided by any theater acoustics the piece rolled on and on, dancing and crashing and receding like the waves it depicted. Messy and out-of-tune work from the first violins unfortunately took away from the otherwise unified playing, featuring pretty but hard-to-hear solos from horn, flute and oboes, delicate percussion and rumbling oceanic basses as Felder steered his crew through Debussy’s pentatonic dreaminess.
Still, the orchestra has plenty of fireworks in store during the season, which may make up for a low-key beginning.
The TSO’s next concert is “Video Games Live,” presented with the Broadway Center on Nov. 9, followed by “Lalo and Beethoven” on Nov. 18, both at the Pantages Theater. 235-591-5894, tacomasymphony.org