The Saginaw Bay Orchestra began the year 2000 with a concert at the Heritage Theater Saturday night that will live long in the memories of those in attendance. Though it was not exactly the crisp, highly prepared Saginaw Bay Orchestra that conductor Leo Najar has become famous for preparing, nevertheless the concert had moments of genius.
The prize of the evening was the performance in the second half of the concert of pianist Anton Kuerti, in Brahms' powerful first concerto. From start to finish, Kuerti exhibited some of the most astonishing pianism heard in this area in recent memory. Some pianists take hold of this concerto and make it merely a vehicle for virtuoso playing, biting too hard into the inspiring first movement with martial incisiveness. Najar and Kuerti sought out the tender, poetic soul of the work, and both were responsible for a performance that was lyrical and affecting.
In the mighty first movement, Kuerti addressed the piano and the score with rapt devotion and imaginative intensity, with phrasing throughout that was elegant and elegiac. And yet, when called for, there was more than enough energy, intensity, and forthright command for the stronger passages.
If the first movement astounded with Kuerti's wide scope of mastery and depth of insight, the second movement elevated the entire concert to an unforgettable level of transcendent beauty and emotional reverence. Najar and the orchestra gave the spatial breadth necessary for Kuerti's almost prayerfully mystical approach to the music, which wafted from the piano often like incense rising from an altar. His tone was pure, and the depth of his expression so engagingly profound that he brought about total hushes of an enraptured audience.
To continue the quasi-religious metaphor for Kuerti's performance, the third movement almost seemed at times like the whirlwind out of which the Deity speaks, alternating with hymns and fugues of highest praise and adulation. Kuerti brought the music focus from all that had come before into an exalting expression of completion, which filled the hall with the knowledge that something greater than the sum of its parts had been created that night. The immediate, prolonged, and (for once) well-deserved standing ovation from the overwhelmed audience was echoed by the orchestra's unmistakable demonstrations of approval.
Before intermission, Najar and the orchestra played, fittingly and symbolically as its first performance in the 2000's, a newly comissioned work called "The Navigator" by pianist and composer Catherine McMichael. From the gossamer opening of this five-plus-minute jewel, and into the interplay of melodies floating their way through the winds, brass, and finally lush strings, the piece was almost hypnotically evocative, in the style of Mendelssohn's "Hebrides." Case in point, the middle section builds to a gentle sonic wave crashing, just before rivulets of winds, harp, and percussion flow outward to the edges of the musical tableau.
In this work, McMichael has happily continued the recent trend in concert music of being harmonically traditional, tonal, and easily accessible, and the audience was suitably appreciative. Najar led the work by Saginaw's own composer with the warmth and attention to detail it deserved. It will be a pleasure to hear this work in future concerts.
Just before intermission came an uneven and seemingly woefully under-rehearsed performance of Stravinsky's "Petrushka." Difficult even for major orchestras, this work of poly-meters and discordant harmonies requires absolute precision and accuracy to pull off its humor and pathos. Najar's approach was pulled back and almost timid, yielding an often ragged performance that missed the work's dark farce and insouciance.
The ensemble playing of the strings, who were perhaps missing ailing concertmaster David Updegraff, was particularly off kilter, both here and later in the introduction to the Brahms. In addition, brass tunings and intonations were often on the flat side, both tonally and sonically. There were, however, some delightful moments, including solo work by pianist Tamara Grefe, flutist Joanna Cowan White, English hornist Ellen Sundia, and clarinetist Kennen White.