Austin Symphony and Emanuel Ax

Local Arts Reviews

Austin Symphony and Emanuel Ax:

Navigating Churning Waters Brilliantly

Bass Concert Hall, Sept. 5

Even if it weren't one of the most familiar pieces of symphonic music, Bedrich Smetana's "The Moldau" would be a perfect way to welcome an audience back for a new symphony season. This music flows downstream through scenic musical snapshots, with a few stressless thrills along the way. For the Austin Symphony's season opener, conductor Peter Bay made this rendition a pleasure cruise. He never pushed, letting us feel the churning currents as they push the music forward. He let the musicians play out yet never made this a cheap souvenir by schmaltzing up the endless, rich melodies. Except at a climax where the flutes didn't become too piercingly loud, this was a polished romp.

Then came Manuel da Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain with guest pianist Emanuel Ax, and for all the good things you can say about the symphony's performance, there was no way it could match the full-voiced certainty of the almost too-familiar "Moldau." The piece is a rarity for the ASO and one of Ax's smaller steps in expanding his repertoire from the Beethoven/Brahms/Chopin core on which he formed his career. You heard the sensitive virtuosity you expect from Ax, and in this music of gestures and interjections, it was easy to hear the relish for the moment that Ax and Bay share. Both brought a forthright eloquence to the music that was always refined, although sometimes too understated and hardly ever passionate. Nevertheless, there was plenty to hold the attention, especially in the way the melodies would wax and wane as they flowed between Ax and the various parts of the orchestra. The care given to the interplay made the occasional underattended phrase that much more noticeable.

For an encore, Ax offered a delicately shaded, and generously pedaled, reading of Chopin's Berceuse.

Finally, there was Sibelius' Second Symphony, a work that invariably brings to mind overpowering, sometimes merciless powers of nature. The churning in "The Moldau" teases your sense of balance like a rocking boat, but in Sibelius' Second, it triggers the primitive anxiety that comes from encountering a force of nature against which you don't stand a chance. If this music is about Finland at all, it's not Finland during tourist season.

The work throws all of its considerable weight on the sections of the orchestra, and one of the dividends of Bay's six years with the ASO is the authoritative, articulate voices of the various sections. Here, each held forth with its own throbbing roar, sometimes grappling with another section and sometimes joining forces with it. Bay gave them full voice, but in this movement kept them perfectly joined down to the millimeter, as when the brass punctuated a muscular phrase begun by the strings in the first movement. You could not detect even a slight gap.

After the perfect storm of the first movement, it was remarkable to hear the precision of the cello pizzicati that opened the second movement -- hard enough if you are counting evenly, but Bay was playing with the rhythm and dynamics. And yet no single player was left exposed. At times the orchestra's gross motor skills were lacking -- ensemble was nearly flawless within sections, but at times the sections didn't agree on the beat (too much sectional rehearsal or too little full rehearsal?) -- but this venial flaw didn't detract from what the musicians accomplished: a brilliantly conceived and executed performance. Ten years ago you'd have had to go the UT Symphony to experience this much unabashed enthusiasm.

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Austin Symphony, ASO, Peter Bay, Emanuel Ax, "The Moldau", Bedrich Smetana, Nights in the Gardens of Spain, Manuel da Falla, Chopin, Berceuse, Sibelius, Second Symphony

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