The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra bade a grand farewell to the 2000-2001 season Saturday night with a sumptuous and inspiring concert at Saint Stanislaus Kostka Church.
It was not the concert planned for nor announced in the pre-season publicity, but it is hard to imagine how the "expected" program could have surpassed the one performed, in almost any criterion one would care to name. Having to abandon a large choral concert, at what in orchestral time was almost the last minute, Music Director Leo Najar was forced to create a program on an appropriately grand scale for a season-ender, one suitable for the religious surroundings, and containing works the orchestra could learn on such short notice.
And do all of these he did.
Comprising two works only, and no intermission, the concert (despite the short preparation time) soared to heights of inspiration and musical majesty on a par with the best Najar and the SBSO have offered over the years.
It began with the orchestra's principal cellist Irina Tikhonova featured as soloist in Bruch's exquisite setting of Kol Nidre, the prayer intoned prior to the beginning of the holy day Yom Kippur. The work's place inside a house of worship was, of course, not in question. And neither was the reverence and power infused into it by Tikhonova. The volume she was able to project may well (as suggested by Najar) have been in part because of the reflection of sound off the hard marble floor.
But it could only have been her own extraordinary talents, drinking deeply from a reservoir of profound feeling, that could account for the elegant spirituality that was heard. Her cello sang with a sweet but very "tenor" voice, producing a truly serene and uplifting reading that resonated throughout the cavernous neo-Gothic spaces of the church. Invoking first quiet, then transcendent, and finally prayerful supplication, she carried the audience on a spiritual journey equal to what an entire choir could have done.
The major work on the program was Bruckner's fourth symphony, a work more difficult for Najar to fit into the mold of "religious" or "spiritual," though he tried stubbornly to do so in his printed program notes. The work is subtitled "Romantic," but just as Beethoven was the bridge between the Classical and Romantic periods, this work looks forward more strongly to the post-Romanticism of Mahler than back to Brahms or others would have called a "Romantic" symphony.
Speaking to the audience prior to the performance, Najar noted the symphony's stark dynamic contrasts, similar to that of the pipe organ, and he leaned heavily on the contrasting majestic and lachrymose or pastoral sections.
The orchestra's reading seemed largely flawless, taking the audience step by bold step, ever closer each movement to Bruckner's final ideal and vision. The fortissimo sections in this symphony are frequent and demanding, and the SBSO proved conclusively that loud can be lyrical, musical, tonally accurate, and more than sheer volume.
Through the work, but especially in the second movement Andante, the orchestra's strings were lush, full, beautifully tuned and articulated. Both the celli and violas, in turn, gave sectional solos that glowed with burnished light.
The wonderful Scherzo (aside from being the sprightly theme music for the late lamented, but long lived radio program Festival of Music with Grover Proctor) inevitably brings smiles of joy and yearning, fun and sympathy.
In the finale, as throughout, Najar created a reverential and spacious vision for the work, evoking measured and disciplined playing from this superb orchestra, causing them to sound about as good as they ever have.
Two of the SBSO's greatest moments now can be said to have occurred at Saint Stanislaus church, two years ago when all of us, Poles and not, were moved to tears, and this year, when our spirits were nourished, uplifted, and taken to new heights.