The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra's year-long celebration of Conductor Leo Najar continued Saturday night at First Presbyterian Church, and it was the Maestro himself who made it a night to remember.
In true bookend fashion, the concert began with a piece by the composer who gave the premiere (and assured the popularity) of the last piece on the concert, Schubert's "Great" C Major symphony. In addition to championing the works of neglected composers such as Schubert and Bach, Felix Mendelssohn was himself a fine creator of memorable orchestral works, such as the Hebrides (or Fingal's Cave) Concert Overture.
Najar created an expansive aural soundscape in this work, and inspired a warm romantic graceful sound in the orchestra. The endearing and evocative six-note theme which permeates the work appeared first in the hands of the lower strings and winds, and it must be said the cello section played with particularly sweet and lyrical airs throughout. It was hard not to believe, after the conclusion of this delicate and intricately lyrical reading, that Leo Najar and the SBSO make the most gorgeous music anywhere around.
The addition which made this an absolutely stellar night was the evening's guest artist, Aaron Rosand, the American-born violinist obviously still at his prime at age 75. In what can only be called an astonishing performance, Rosand proved conclusively that delicate phrasing, a simple and beautiful tone, and genuine musicality are far preferable to (and much more rare than) technical wizardry and blazingly fast fingers by themselves. His playing was virtually flawless, with some of the most remarkable dreamily smooth legati, at moderate dynamics and such rapid tempi that it seemed as if he were producing the impossible. He also demonstrated clean and lyrical articulation (even at the highest fingering positions), and the equal ability to attack and vanquish the bravura passages as well.
A few of the audience members began to applaud after the first movement, and in honor of Rosand's performance, most of the rest of the audience dared to break the silly American taboo of applause between movements and saluted him warmly. When there's something this wonderful to acknowledge, which is rare enough to prevent abuse or habit, we should emulate the Europeans and let our approbation be heard.
Najar kept the tempi on the brisk side, which suits this piece perfectly, and it must be noted that the short opening string choir introduction to the middle movement was one of the most beautifully executed passages Najar and the orchestra have ever given us. That passage presaged Rosand's most extraordinarily subtle and moving playing of the evening, and Najar fought the enthusiasm of the orchestra to keep their volume sublimated so that every nuance of the soloist's artistry could be heard.
Rosand's mastery was best acknowledged during his solo section which bridges the second and third movements, when the violinists, indeed all the strings, were watching him with wonder, admiration, and awe.
After intermission, Najar returned, a mammoth 282-page score in hand, to conduct the final symphony of Schubert, the "Great" C Major. Even though the work got the appellation "Great" to distinguish it from the composer's previous (and smaller) C Major symphony, it bears the title well.
Lesser conductors find so much in works such as this that they seem to conduct from phrase to phrase, showing us pieces of the work, but never how they fit together. One of Najar's greatest achievements is his ability to acknowledge the building blocks, but in so doing soar through them to reveal the work's entire architecture, not merely single elevations, but total three-dimensional understanding of how it all fits together.
Such was the case with the huge Schubert "Great."
The orchestra was as disciplined as is usual for a Najar ensemble, and their reading was colorful, energetic, beautifully balanced.
First Presbyterian Church's sanctuary provides a warm, though never over ambient, acoustic, which is just right for blending the voices of this work. Najar never let the energy, focus, or direction falter, and when the audience sprung to its feet in standing ovation, he seemed genuinely moved.
That made it unanimous.