Sunday, May 15, 2011

An ode to the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra's final concert of the season

review by Janet I. Martineau
What a remarkable and fascinating piece of programming maestro Brett Mitchell came up with to conclude the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra’s 75th season Saturday night at the Temple Theatre.
We can’t stop mulling it over....and, although Beethoven’s mighty Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 (Ode to Joy) was the main feature of the night, it is the opening piece on the program that continues to enchant us.
As anyone familiar with classical music knows, Beethoven’s 9th ends its four movements with an enthusiastic explosion of choral music from four soloists and, on this night, a choir of 98 voices culled from across the mid-Michigan region. Sometimes the anticipation of hearing their poem-inspired words praising God makes the rest of the just orchestral work, well, pale.
So, what to program on a program with No. 9 as its cornerstone.
Mitchell turned to a 12-minute piece composed in 2000, some 176 years after the hour-long Beethoven. Instead of closing with a massive choir after three orchestra-only passages, it opens with a mezzo-soprano a cappella solo and then becomes an all-orchestral work.
And, titled “Rainbow Body,”  it is based not on a poetic praise to God but rather an Ave Maria chant by medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen and the Tibetan Buddhist idea of an enlightened body, after death,  is absorbed  back into the universe as energy and light.
Wow! Neat concept -- for both the piece and its placement as a complement to the Beethoven.
And wow! again because it was a compelling piece to listen to -- brimming with richness  and color and nuances and unusual sounds as well as some dynamic cello work by principal Andrea Yun.
In the program notes, composer Christopher Theofandis is quoted as saying at one point he is trying to capture the lingering reverberations heard in an old cathedral. That is indeed there, but also in amid that peaceful and lush setting also runs a turbulent and chaotic intensity which propels the piece.
And mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak, who rose up from behind the orchestra to sing its opening,  sent goosebumps with the richness of her voice.
Can you tell, we loved it.
But on to the Beethoven 9th.
History was being made with it on this night -- maestro Mitchell was conducting it for the first time in his young career. As he himself said at the outset, he will forever remember this night (for better or worse) and this place and these performers no matter where else he conducts this massive showpiece.
Fortunately it was a “for better” performance during which just about every instrument in the orchestra had a solo moment that shone and the ensemble as a whole was superb. The richness of the deeper strings (cello and bass) was of particular note as well as interludes from the woodwinds and percussion.
If there was a snafu, it came with the chorale when it did not, at first, rise and sit in unison and quietly. (Picky, picky.)
Prepared by SBSO choirmaster Gregory H. Largent (who joined his singers), the choir was, however, dynamic in its delivery. 
Its singers came from nearly 30 choirs -- churches, Saginaw Choral Society, Midland Music Society, schools and colleges, Bay Chorale -- from not only the Tri-City area but also Alma, Port Huron, Flint, Kawkawlin, Hemlock and Reese.
No small accomplishment to gather voices coming from an assortment of skills and conductor styles (and probably conflicting schedules) to mold it into a cohesive ensemble for this piece. (On this night it was also sadly announced that Largent is retiring after 21 years as the SBSO choirmaster.)
The four guest soloists (in particular bass-baritone Timothy Jones but also tenor Tyler Nelson, mezzo Gawrysiak and soprano Joyce El-Khoury) were icing on the vocal cake. (And oh, by the way, Gawrysiak makes her Tanglewood/Boston Symphony Orchestra debut with the Beethoven 9th this summer!)
A cheering, standing ovation concluded the night.

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