The first fruits of a three million dollar investment in acoustical revitalization were harvested Saturday night, as the Midland Symphony Orchestra played its first concert inside the Midland Center for the Arts' extraordinary new concert shell. Maestro Carlton Woods had an all-Beethoven concert ready to inaugurate both the season and the shell, and there was cautious optimism all around. Would the new system live up to its promise? Would concert-goers really notice a difference?
There was more earnestness this year in the audience's singing of the National Anthem, in light of national and world conditions. Woods read a somber statement on behalf of the orchestra, dedicating the evening's performance "to the memory of those who lost their lives, and to the unified effort to end terrorism."
But even with this focus, even with a world-renowned guest artist, and even with an audience-pleasing collection of easily accessible music, the "stars" of the evening were clearly the new shell and the re-born sound of the Center Auditorium. It was the buzz on everyone's lips all night. Many who hadn't seen the new shell walked in and gasped. It is truly a radical departure (in every way) from what had been before, larger, deeper, modern yet warm, imposing but comfortable.
"It looks like the big city," was heard far more than once. The visual effect is truly stunning.
But its architectural appeal, while never eclipsed, was soon more than matched by the absolutely incredible sound that emanated from it. In terms of pure aural appeal, it seems safe to say no concert has ever sounded that good in Midland.
From the opening bars of the Egmont Overture, the difference was acute and all-encompassing, enhancing Woods' smoothly lyrical approach which let the music draw its own drama instead of having it forced into it. The sound is now bright, clear, crystalline in nature. It does not come at you from one source, but thanks to the myriad angles, folds, and baffles of the shell, it rather "blooms" from the stage and gently envelops the listener. It is possible to distinctly hear the interplay of voices in quiet passages, and the orchestra is no longer forced to play beyond the limits of good articulation to be heard loud.
All of the good news is not without its challenges. There are still areas in which Woods and the orchestra will have to readjust, including achieving an almost totally new conception of correct balance among the sections. The horns and trumpets were still elevated on the highest risers, and they consistently overpowered the rest of the orchestra all night, while in the second half the trombones, seated on lower risers, blended beautifully.
John O'Conor, Ireland's most famous and accomplished pianist, joined the orchestra for a technically brilliant reading of Beethoven's fifth piano concerto. While it is of course quite possible that the MSO's Steinway sounded better than ever because it was in the hands of a master like O'Conor, it is also likely that its new-found bell-like brightness came in part from the new sound system. O'Conor will always get more huzzahs for his dazzling pianism and dramatic aural colorings than for any great depths of emotional statements, and the audience seemed to find that just right for this concerto on this night.
Woods' beautifully soft opening to the second movement, poised yet Romantic, was carefully and with lace-like precision wafted on new acoustical wings to the amazed ears of an audience who hadn't heard that much color or clarity ever in this hall.
After intermission, Woods returned to end the evening with perhaps the best known audience pleaser in the repertoire, Beethoven's fifth symphony. He opted for a graceful andante in the opening movement, more relaxed than the Allegro con brio marking the composer called for. It was less Fate knocking at the door than Fate leaving its card on a tray in the hall. Thus, in order to have contrast with the second movement, which expects to be taken at a walking with motion pace (Andante con moto), Woods made it a Romantic stroll through a moonlit garden. When the strings were alone and soft, Woods was able to bring them down with confidence to almost a whisper, and the contrast (and therefore color) was exquisite.
The final movement came back to Beethoven's tempo, a brisk Allegro, for a quietly heroic and triumphant end to an evening that was at once inspiring and exciting.