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Lexington Philharmonic seizes the spotlight in season finale

The Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra wrapped up its 2016-17 season Friday night with another excellent concert, maintaining its consistent quality and building momentum for the future. Under the music direction of Scott Terrell, the orchestra has provided this region’s audiences with interesting, well-performed programs throughout the year, and is only getting better.

One hallmark of the season has been that although the LPO hosts many high-quality soloists and collaborators, the orchestra itself not only holds its own but frequently upstages its invited guests. That was again the case in Friday’s concert, for which pianist Conrad Tao joined forces for Gershwin’s “Piano Concerto in F.” First heard in Lexington nine years ago as a child prodigy, Tao is now a young man, and this concerto suits his youthful vitality well. He played exquisitely, with rhythmic precision and elegant, stylish phrasing. He found a variety of ravishing tone colors, bringing nuanced expression to every moment of the music. I also enjoyed watching him play. He is one of those musicians who realizes that this is a performing art —there is a visual element that must be fulfilled. With charisma and charm, Tao physicalizes the sound he is making, so that his engagement with the music is coordinated to the audience’s sight as well as sound. Had it not been for that aspect of his art, I would have been left wondering what his interpretation of the climactic passages was: for all the refinement of his playing, Tao could not be heard in the hall in the big moments. It’s not that the orchestra played too loudly, but rather that he lacks the heft in his playing to summon enough sound from the piano to project to the back of the Singletary Center. I could clearly see what his musical intentions were, but for all his full-body flailing, he simply couldn’t be heard in the climaxes. This is an unfortunate technical weakness, perhaps predicated in part upon his slight physique, but it is the only flaw in his otherwise superlative playing.

The orchestra was awesome in the Gerswhin, especially demonstrating its jazz crossover skills in the bluesy second movement, of which Stephen Campbell’s extended solo on muted trumpet was the highlight of the evening. The crackling energy of the toccata-like third movement was infectious, earning Tao an enthusiastic ovation, for which he regaled the audience with a lively rendition of Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca.” He chose such an exciting tempo that he had a hard time holding it steady within phrases, actually rushing some of them rather than maintaining the blazing pace, but all-in-all, it was an effective encore.

The audience also got to hear a sampling of Tao’s compositional talent, as the concert opened with his short tone poem “Pángû,” a musical representation of a Chinese creation myth. As a work of juvenilia (he was 18 when he composed it), it showed well-developing skills in orchestration and musical structure and a mainstream musical imagination, providing a pleasant start to the evening.

If the purpose of a concerto is to showcase the virtuosity of a soloist, then a concerto for orchestra is intended to highlight the skills of an entire body of musicians. Bartók’s masterpiece “Concerto for Orchestra” provides just such an opportunity, which the LPO seized with gusto. The first movement showed the strings and especially principal flutist Arpi Anderson to beautiful advantage. The second movement, which introduced the woodwind instruments in pairs followed by a stately brass chorale was punctuated throughout by the perfect rhythm and tone color of James Campbell on the tenor drum. The diaphanous third movement featured the harps and flutes, with oboist David Powell milking all the sensuality he could out of his solo. The orchestra handled well the faux banality of the fourth movement, and brought the work to an exciting conclusion in the fifth, the raucous fugue benefiting from the marvelous virtuosity of our players, good enough to be soloists, banded together to constitute our wonderful regional orchestra.

The Davies curtain-raiser is a festive, accessible piece, full of swirling orchestral colors. Indeed, it functioned as a concerto for orchestra, giving all the instrumental sections and their respective principal players opportunities to shine. One remarkable segment of the music utilizes the orchestral instruments in unusual combinations to sound like bagpipes, anticipating the climax when a live bagpiper marches onto the stage adding authentic Orkney Island flavor. Andrew Carlisle cut a fine figure in his traditional kilt and regalia, his folk instrument soaring above the standard concert instruments in the finale.

Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 1” is a big, bold work in the Classical style enlivened by forward-looking Romantic-Era musical gestures. Terrell conducted with bravado, and the orchestra responded with perhaps the best performance of any one piece I have ever heard it deliver. The players attacked the music with precision and tempered it with warmth, skillfully blending in and out of Beethoven’s busy textures. The first movement, especially, crackled with vitality, and the musicians approached the entire symphony with zest and vigor. The woodwinds were absolutely beautiful throughout the evening, and most of all in this symphony, played with patrician elegance and a richly sonorous blend. And the Philharmonic’s strings were truly sublime, etching out Beethoven’s lines with bite and infusing them with expression. That’s really what I liked about this performance: it wasn’t perfunctory at all, but rather, each phrase emerged as if carefully calibrated to the overall musical purpose.

Similarly, the Philharmonic played with world-class professionalism in Brahms’ “Concerto for Violin and Cello,” providing worthy support for the soloists Marc Rovetti and Yumi Kendall, leading violinist and cellist respectively at The Philadelphia Orchestra. Rovetti and Kendall played beautifully together and brought forth a rhapsodic quality in the music which contrasted effectively with the deeply burnished tone of the orchestra. Terrell demonstrated great sensitivity in frequently leading the Philharmonic to play lightly, deferring to the soloists’ prominence, despite Brahms’ thick textures in the accompaniment. The orchestra obeyed in providing background to their soloist colleagues, while still expressing the music itself with the same attention to color and phrasing they had employed in the Beethoven.

Indeed, despite the excellence of the three soloists on the program, the real stars of the show were the players of the Lexington Philharmonic itself. It was grand to hear them in a standard program that allowed us to gauge just how far they have come in this journey toward being one of the very finest regional orchestras in the country.

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