The Saginaw Bay Orchestra continued its season Saturday night at the Heritage Theater with a program of impassioned works very well played.
By sheer force of will, it seems, this orchestra continues to eke out a financial existence, while excelling in artistic value. That "force of will" emanates from many devoted believers and supporters, but it continues to be the musical vision and direction of Conductor Leo Najar which has made it the best around, even if its offerings are pared down this year.
Though the concert's officially logoed title was "Autumn Grandeur," that in no real way described the elegant combination of works that appeared on the program. Once again, Najar showed himself to be a true connoisseur of musical subtleties that go together to make great programming, even if that vision didn't get used to describe or promote the concert.
The theme that tied together the varied works on Saturday's concert was, simply, unrequited (or otherwise tragically ended) love.
Wagner's treatment of the legend of Tristan and Isolde, in addition to creating an almost totally new harmonic approach to musical theater, simply exudes drama and passion. In beginning Saturday's program with the "Prelude and Love Death" from this opera, Najar served notice that the emotional well would be drawn from all evening.
Najar's reading was measured and lush, with the orchestra sounding out the full richness of the Wagnerian orchestration. Their playing was full of plaintive longing, alternating with fiery emotion, giving way finally to the devastating tragedy of lost love. The orchestra's unswerving mastery of the work (and its idiom) was marred only by a steady stream of late patrons who were allowed to seat themselves during the work, some of whom walked all the way to the front, breaking the hypnotic drama unfolding on the stage.
The next work on the program was a youthful (if ultimately lesser) violin concerto by Bartok which, continuing the concert's theme, was written as a musical offering of the composer to a violinist with whom he was deeply (and unrequitedly) in love. Violinist Peter Michalica, the evening's guest artist, is clearly as in love with the story of the creation of the concerto as he is with the work itself, and he delivered both with skill and sympathy.
The work begins with the solo violin, and Michalica played it as a sweet-voiced declaration of simple, untroubled amor, which he continued throughout the first movement, even as the undercurrent for that love as expressed in the orchestra moved from supportive to troubled. Michalica never over-sentimentalized his playing, staying within the implied musical nature of the supplicant suitor offering a gift of love. Watching him, what one saw was an almost stoic violinist. But with eyes closed, what was heard was a violin full of yearning, often on the verge of tears.
In the second, more virtuoso movement, Michalica displayed somewhat less presence in the performance. He was less in command of the psychological strength of the piece, though in technical control of the notes. Najar and the orchestra provided a clean, supportive, and sensitive reading in accompaniment to the solo violin.
After intermission, Najar returned to conduct the third symphony of Brahms. If the Bartok concerto was the youthful ardor of a future master, this symphony represents the full impassioned nature of the mature genius. At age 50, Brahms completed this symphony in Wiesbaden, the home of the singer whom many of his closest friends thought he would marry. Just how much the physical presence of this woman had on the final symphony, there can be no doubt that it is near the pinnacle of Brahms' Romantic style.
Najar's approach throughout was sensitive and eloquent, effecting an achingly beautiful song-like second movement, and leading the orchestra to weave the various threads of the third movement waltz into a shimmering tapestry. Even as the face and format of these orchestral concerts continue to evolve, Najar is still able to pull intricate, delicate, even spiritually dramatic playing from the SBO, as demonstrated in Brahms' deeply felt and complex triumph in the final movement.