The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra opened its season of guest conductors Saturday night at Saginaw’s First Presbyterian Church with a concert of tried and true works that filled the small hall to near capacity. Each of this season’s concerts will feature one of a troupe of guest conductors, who are auditioning for the position of the orchestra’s Music Director, and who are being asked to show what they can do with a series of works they were not able to choose.
What they have is what one source close to the orchestra described as “a season of warhorses.” While it might be true that this could “level the playing field,” and that this year’s concerts are likely to win audience favor (warhorses are, by definition, audience favorites), it may well be a disservice to the candidates.
After all, it will be the new conductor’s programming philosophy that audiences will vote on by whether or not they buy season tickets, and so it seems only right that the candidates be allowed to show everyone what they might expect. Hearing Saturday night’s concert has really revealed very little about in what direction this conductor might wish to take the orchestra, nor how musically qualified he is to do so.
The season’s first candidate for the position of SBSO Music Director is Matthew Savery, who was featured Saturday night. Perhaps it should be said first that Savery became a favorite of much of the audience, who at the conclusion of the evening gave him a standing ovation. And while there was much in this personable and energetic young man worthy of praise, nevertheless there were areas during the evening in which he did not seem to bring out the level of excellence of which this orchestra is quite capable, and in which his approach just did not seem to work.
Savery began his reading of the first work, Rossini’s Overture to The Barber of Seville carefully. His tempi were initially broad and occasionally seemed tentative, though in the final section he lit up a fiery, somewhat frenetic closure. In the Rossini and in the next work, Mozart’s G Major Piano Concerto, K.453, he was able to elicit smooth sweet tones from the strings, and disciplined playing all round.
There was here, however, and for much of the evening, a problem with balance among the sections, though this may in part be chalked up to his unfamiliarity with the hall and its acoustics. By contrast to the Rossini, the tempi in the first and third movements of the concerto were brisk, though once again as the work came to its conclusion Savery seemed to push things too fast for the music to keep up. One wonders if perhaps the Romantic literature might be Savery’s forte, as the second movement really seemed almost to take on a foreshadowing of Schumann or Brahms in its broad full stops, grand musical gestures, drama, and dynamics.
The evening’s guest soloist was famed pianist Ralph Votapek, not a name one thinks of immediately when the subject of Mozart comes up. He nonetheless demonstrated his award-winning skills to great audience delight, though he had a tendency to be more percussive in his playing than the classically elegant writing of Mozart might require.
After intermission and a quiet reading of Verdi’s “La Traviata” Act III Prelude, Savery clued in the audience that something major was about to take place in the form of their performance of Beethoven’s seventh symphony, and in particular the reading of the final movement. Savery was clearly most at home in this work, alternating the delicate with the fierce, mirrored by facial expressions to the orchestra that indicated both. His tempi were strong in the fast movements and beckoning in the second, and in general the balance problems seemed to have been somewhat worked out.
When the fourth movement arrived, Savery set the dial to blazingly fast and pushed the orchestra into a reading that had energy (and the audience loved that), but abandoned much of the musicality and lyricism that is also a major portion of this work. It is to the orchestra’s enormous credit that they were able to almost keep up with this unorthodox approach, right up to the coda, where the focus and discipline slightly melted.
At one point, Savery told the audience that “You’re not supposed to have an orchestra this good in a place like Saginaw.” Ignoring the perhaps slight insult to the city inadvertently embedded therein, it was clear that both he and the audience jointly found great respect for the orchestra. Let’s hope whoever is hired as the next Music Director is worthy of it.