If Saturday night's season opening concert at the Midland Center for the Arts was any indication, the Midland Symphony may well be said to have come of age. While it was not a totally perfect evening, nevertheless Maestro Carlton Woods in this concert clearly brought the MSO to a level of clarity, precision, polish, and musicality that has not been seen before.
The three works on the program were carefully chosen and perfectly matched to the orchestra's abilities, and Woods led the players through almost flawless performances of two quite challenging 20th century works. Gone, at least for this evening, were the problems of the past couple of seasons of "over-reach," in which it seemed as if Woods were programming works for which the orchestra was not quite ready, and which resulted in some rough performances.
After the now-traditional sing-along of the National Anthem to begin the season, Woods made a point of having the new symphony subscribers stand, noting the orchestra's being at 100 more new subscribers than at this time last year. The total audience seemed somewhat smaller than last season, so when so many new subscribers did stand, it was hard not to be alarmed at the attrition from last year's subscribers which clearly must have occurred.
The program began with an almost picture perfect performance of Walter Piston's suite The Incredible Flutist. Principle flutist Joanna Cowen-White was sufficiently "incredible" in her solos to make particular mention, but note must be made of the entire MSO woodwind choir, which consistently shows itself the best part of this orchestra. Not only are they beautifully blended when sounding as an ensemble, but their principles, including Cowen-White, oboist Roger Rehm, clarinetist Linda Hargett, and bassoonist Drew Hinderer, are strong leaders and excellent soloists, as shown Saturday night.
The orchestra delivered a brisk, energetic, disciplined, quirky (as demanded by the score), witty, and warm reading which ranked up with the best this orchestra has done in recent memory.
One small complaint: this work is so programmatic that almost certainly audience members would have enjoyed and benefited from being able to follow the descriptive listing of the movements in the program, but the hall was so dark that it was impossible. Why do performing arts organizations go to such great pains to produce excellent program notes, such as the MSO's written by Drew Hinderer, only to have the hall so dark as to make movement lists and other information totally inaccessible during the performance?
The evening's guest soloist was cellist Gary Hoffman, who delivered a mesmerizing performance of Bloch's rhapsodic Schelomo. Hoffman traversed the depth of emotion in this work, its breadth of dramatic expression, and its virtuosic demands, with an easy lyrical and poignantly yearning reading. The solo cello is a quiet instrument when matched against a full orchestra, but Hoffman was able to draw full and arresting power from the highest to lowest ranges, contrasted beautifully with highly colored and transparent lyrical passages.
As the audience began its standing ovation, Hoffman gave Woods a well deserved bear hug for the highly moving and well nuanced support given by the orchestra, every bit as focused and disciplined as the Piston work before it. In response to the audience's applause, Hoffman and the orchestra played an encore of David Popper's lush and rhythmic Hungarian Rhapsody, allowing the cellist to demonstrate a blazingly facile virtuosity and the message that the cello can be every bit as much a gypsy instrument as the violin.
After intermission, Woods returned to conduct the orchestra in Brahms' popular Symphony no. 2, in what was a slightly less successful but still highly enjoyable performance. It was in the beginning of the work that the orchestra seemed less sure of itself than it had in the first half of the program, with some entrances slightly fuzzy and intonation not unified at various times. In the third and fourth movements, cohesion seemed to return and along with it came focus, energy, and drama.
In the first movement, Woods' reading was subdued and gentle, and even in the more "urgent" passages he filtered through a pastoral longing totally appropriate for the mood of the work, and in the second movement the approach was tender and appropriately introspective. As shown throughout the symphony, but particularly in the finale, Woods' Romanticism, while sharp and defined, is never biting or out of proportion, and while tender and lyrical, it is never grotesque or lugubrious.