It was a modest-sized audience on hand at the Midland Symphony’s concert Saturday night at the Midland Center for the Arts. The evening was full of 19th century favorites, beginning with von Weber’s lively Overture to Der Freischutz.
In his tenure with what is essentially a “town and gown” community orchestra, Woods has instilled the Midland Symphony with discipline and a sense of technical ensemble, not an easy task for a group that is diverse in age and geography. Such was the case with the von Weber overture, which Woods and the MSO infused with energy borne of clockwork-like precision.
The evening’s guest artist was Finnish pianist Antti Siirala, last year’s unanimous winner of the Dublin International piano Competition. Siirala is certainly a gifted performer, with amazing abilities to produce tonal color and lyrical drama in quieter, gentle, more delicate passages.
For some reason, his performance of the Brahms D minor Piano Concerto with Woods and the MSO came off less well than it ought. The first thought as to why which comes to mind is that this is a profound concerto with great depths that are not always accessible to performers of lesser years. Just because one’s fingers can “do” the notes does not mean that one truly “owns” the work.
Which isn’t to say that there weren’t highly enjoyable and beautifully executed passages that arrested the ear and spoke to the heart. Certainly, it will be a great joy to hear what he does with (and how he grows into) this mighty work in 15 years.
The lack of total success may have had less to do with Siirala, however, than with Woods and the orchestra. Especially in the first two movements, it seemed the orchestra could have done with a couple of more intensive rehearsals. They seemed under-prepared, with some tentative playing in places, and ragged entrances.
Woods kept the tempi of these movements quite slow, almost as if there were some rule that slower equals dramatic. When the notes come as slowly as they did in the first movement, it is often very hard to find the inherent phrasing and musicality that the composer created therein. In addition, there were rather clear tuning problems in the strings, and at least one very out of tune horn. It was strange that Concertmaster Jason Economides did not tune the orchestra to the piano prior to the concerto. Perhaps this was partly the culprit.
The pianist always gets to set the tempo in the final movement, and Siirala sent the orchestra and his own fingers flying. The color-filled playing he was able to elicit in quieter moments in the second movement was answered with similar success in the arabesque-type playing demanded in the finale. The audience gave what seemed an improbable standing ovation for such an uneven performance, but perhaps they were responding to the clearly fine talent that Siirala is.
After intermission Woods returned to conduct the blazingly bold, delightfully danceable Seventh Symphony of Beethoven. Rhythm is both king and prime minister in this work dubbed by Wagner as “the apotheosis of the dance,” and so any performance worth its salt should require the warning label often voiced by pianist/comic Victor Borge: “There’ll be no dancing in the aisles unless absolutely necessary!”
While this reading probably would not have required aisle dancing, Woods brought the orchestra back to crisp, clean, almost metronomic accuracy throughout, emphasizing the cool and detached over the passionate or Romantic in the second movement, and with a heroically rousing race to the finish in the Finale.