It was an heroic and triumphant season finale for the Saginaw Bay Orchestra Saturday night at Heritage Theater, even as the atmosphere was tinged with foreboding.
When filtered through the lens of the orchestra's year-long battle with solvency and its future, the evening's tribute to Leo Najar for his twenty years of service as Music Director and Conductor took on the appearance of either a wake or, at best, a retirement dinner. Complete with immensely deserved accolades, the inevitable plaque, and even a symbolic gold watch, it was unclear whether the pre-concert ceremonies were only to honor Najar, or if they heralded either his leaving the orchestra or perhaps the demise of the organization altogether.
And no one said anything at all to make it clear.
In the midst of a continuing fight for its life, this exceptional orchestra delivered yet one more reminder why it is the finest, most artistically excellent, and thoroughly enjoyable orchestra in this region. Perhaps symbolic of the organization's recent woes was the fact that the evening's original program, Mahler's indomitable "Resurrection" symphony, had to be scrapped at virtually the last minute for lack of performing resources, and a substitute program was hastily devised.
The program began with Handel's mighty Royal Fireworks Music, a perennial audience favorite, which Najar served up in martial style, but with attention paid to the dance origins of several of the movements. While the performance was in full modern orchestra version, there were a few well placed bows in the direction of 18th century performance practice, including nicely terraced dynamics; tasteful embellishments on the repeats; and sharp, crisp dotted rhythms. At the end, Najar appropriately singled out the trumpets, winds, and horns for special recognition of a colorful and Herculean performance.
Next came Slovak composer Jan Cikker's evocative "Spomienky" (Memories), an 18-minute misty watercolor that looks backward through Cikker's mind to an intricate series of bittersweet tableaux. From the weeping strings, seasoned with occasional color from the winds, through the last movement's bleak evocation of inner turmoil and the angst of the past, the orchestra breathed life and drama into the notes.
The first half ended with an encore presentation of the short tone poem "The Navigator," by the orchestra's unofficial composer laureate, Catherine McMichael, a work which was premiered by the SBO just four short months ago. If anything, the tapestry-like work received a more full-bodied, relaxed, robust performance this time, with the Romance of the sea seeming more evident, urgent, and vital.
After intermission came the consolation prize for having the "Resurrection" Symphony cancelled, Mahler's tuneful, heroic, majestic Symphony No. 1.
It seemed clear that something special was about to happen in the opening mystical forest scene, which breaks from live darkness into morning. We know it's morning, first because Mahler used the oh-so-hummable theme from his song "Ging heut morgen" (I walked this morning) to remind us, but also because the orchestra melodically smiled a sunny greeting to bring us into the drama of the work.
The orchestra built on this energy, with superb solos (especially in the winds), through the first two movements, and into the hushed mournful lament of the third. The symphony's imagery (Mahler's or our own) couldn't have been more evident if pictures had been flashed on the back wall.
But it was in the last movement that the incredible happened. There is danger in reading too much into it, but it was almost as if the orchestra was waiting with something important, vital, and virtuosic to say. From them poured out pent-up energy, eagerness, and everything from the Romantic continuum-the subtle and the onslaught; lyrical tenderness meeting cataclysmic apocalypse; sound and fury suffused with youthful desire and spiritual hope.
The audience lept to its feet in honor of this movement and this concert, sending an unmistakable encomium for the remarkable orchestra that bears Leo Najar's immutable imprint, which, one hopes, the community will hear and overwhelmingly respond to.
While the conjurer's trick of holding the SBO's body and soul together continues, with no resolution in sight, one thing is starkly clear: the soul of this orchestra is Leo Najar's musical leadership. Reviewing Najar through 15 of his 20 years has been musically rewarding, endearingly educational, almost never disappointing, and tastefully surprising. Here's one very enthusiastic wish for decades more.