REVIEW: Modesto Symphony explores Ravel, Saint-Saens

Halloween arrived a little early in Modesto Friday night as the Modesto Symphony Orchestra opened its 2008-09 season with Malcolm Arnold's wild and colorful "Tam O'Shanter Overture."

Written in 1955, the overture is inspired by Scottish poet Robert Burns' darkly humorous poem of the same name which describes a frenzied witches' romp that ultimately turns its fury on the protagonist, Tam O'Shanter himself. The overture's orchestration gives ample opportunity for the ensemble to unfurl an enormous range of color and action in all sections. Swooping trombones, belching bassoons, soaring horns, and sawing strings all contribute to an energetic and playful (if hellish) scene which impress and confuse the listener all at the same time. After offering the audience some characteristically witty opening remarks, Maestro David Lockington guided the orchestra through the thorny score with the assurance and inspiration necessary to bring out the best in his players, who gave a virtuoso performance.

Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter took the stage next with a subtle and nuanced rendition of Ravel’s Piano Concert in G Major. Already winner of one of the world’s most prestigious musical honors—the Gilmore Artist Award—Fliter is a young artist with much to look forward to in her career. Her approach to the Ravel was more intimate and chamber-like than sparkling and extroverted. At times I wished that she would open up her sound more, not least by laying off the soft pedal, which tends to give the piano tone a muffled quality. This was particularly true of the opening segment of the second movement, which ranks easily in the top ten most beautiful passages in all of classical music. Fliter's version didn’t sing as much as might have, leaving the melody a bit at the mercy of a left hand accompaniment which threatened to overtake it at times. Nevertheless, her sense of color and pacing were artistic and reflect a sophisticated musicianship that pervaded other elements of the performance as well. She handled the rhythmic drive of both the first and third movements with a deft, steady energy, and did her part to blend well with the ensemble.

That said, I did find that the orchestra occasionally lacked cohesiveness between sections in both the Ravel and the evening’s concluding piece, Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 3 in C minor, also known as the "Organ Symphony." For example, the double-note opening figure in the first movement of the Symphony struggled at times to anchor itself convincingly in a groove, and while the strings or the winds might have been together as sections, they tended to wander off the mark they needed to agree upon as a whole. This rhythmic instability continued to crop up now and then in sections with quicker tempos. Still, the Saint-Saens was performed with great passion and conviction. The Poco adagio movement, which offers another one of the most ravishing melodies of all time, was rendered with rich, satisfying tone and long luxuriant phrasing lines, most notably in the strings. Maestro Lockington’s tempos for the third movement challenged the orchestra’s ability to keep up without sounding a bit frantic, but they also generally lent a thrill that can only come in performance with a willingness to embrace risk. The magnificent conclusion, which also ranks high on the all-star classical symphony finale list, was notable for compelling grandeur contributed by a fantastic, towering sound from the brass, and of course from the organ, expertly handled by Svetlana Avetisyan.

Stephen Thomas is a professor of music at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock.