Conception of Fate

Local Arts Reviews

Conception of Fate: Tapped Potential

Saturday, February 23

Bass Concert Hall

Music Director Peter Bay has led the Austin Symphony into a new era of exquisite and exacting performances, tantalizing audiences with a bold and refreshing mix of the standard classical repertory, such as Saturday night's offering of Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven, while mixing it up with all manner of the unexpected, such as a collaboration with local popular musician Darden Smith in November 1999 or -- gasp! -- a Gustav Mahler symphony (No. 4) this past October. Bay conducts with panache, grace, verve, and ample amounts of generosity (guests and orchestra are assured at least three curtain calls at Bay's behest, as the Maestro shares the well-earned adulation of the audience). And above all, with Bay at the helm, the orchestra sounds impressively strong and assured, capable of taking anything Bay throws at it, wild or mainstream, in its stride.

As far as classical music goes, it doesn't get any more mainstream than a concert of works by Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven. And while the pressure may be on to make the eclectic or unfamiliar accessible, there is no less pressure when it comes to playing music most of us probably recognize. Interestingly, despite the clear differences among the pieces, each of the three selections shares a rather similar thumping opening measure. Attention grabbing to say the least, but afterward, each piece settles into a quite comfortable world where the composer's unique voice resounds. The Brahms selection, Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates), is for chorus with full orchestra and is one of only a handful of such Brahms works. Chorus Austin, under the direction of Dr. Kenneth Sheppard, provided fine voice for this heavy ode. After the pulsing beginning, the mood turned somber as the chorus intoned, "Let the race of man fear the gods!" The piece is dark, even when the gods are being extolled for all their wonders, and the forbidding, ominous tones of Brahms' work filtered throughout the thoughtful performance.

Guest artist Diane Walsh joined the orchestra for Mozart's Piano Concerto in C major, K 503, and a more exuberant and playful performance is hard to imagine. The score has Mozart fairly toying with a variety of themes and motifs, and pianist Walsh was delightful to watch and hear, as she played -- emphasis on the free and cavorting sense of "play" -- with bubbly, virtuosic jollity. Such exuberance was catching, and the ASO matched the wit and style of Walsh's excellent work.

The final selection, Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 36, started with another percussive, insistent opening measure, followed by what, from the relatively young composer (he was 32 at the time), seemed to be a precursor of greater things to come. Throughout the symphony, the stateliness of the work was interwoven with something akin to youthful enthusiasm, with Bay and symphony tapping into the sense of potential of a composer on the verge of immortality.

The Austin Symphony would appear to be tapping into its own potential. Performing wonderful feats of music is akin -- if a post-Olympics simile may be indulged -- to performing an ice-skating routine in competition. There is no room for error; everyone can see when there's a wobble. And yet, every so often, there are performances that offer something beyond perfection, where performance becomes an elusive harmony of skill blended with style and effortlessness, strength and fluidity, all coming together in a transcendent presentation -- where it all becomes art. The Austin Symphony played a performance much like that on Saturday night, where craft and style melded into a profound, spirited, joyful night of art.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Conception of Fate, Austin Symphony, Peter Bay, Darden Smith, Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates), Johannes Brahms, Chorus Austin, Kenneth Sheppard, Diane Walsh, Wolfgang Mozart, Piano Concerto in C major, K 503, Ludwig Beethoven, Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 3

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