The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra closed out its Masterworks Season on Saturday night with an enjoyable concert at First Presbyterian Church. It was, in addition, the final concert in a year-long series of auditions for the position of Music Director and Conductor of the orchestra, necessitated by Leo Najar’s leaving.
Conductor du jour was Geoffrey Moull, who led the SBSO in a loose and not terribly imaginative amalgam of works selected for him.
A couple of minutes past 8:00 o’clock, after concertmaster Hal Grossman had tuned the orchestra, Moull came out to audience applause. It was not, however, to be the start of the concert, as through some very faulty house management, late patrons were allowed to continue to flow into the house. Quite appropriately, though somewhat awkwardly, Moull was forced to wait, motionless, on the podium for the house to settle down.
The program began with Ravel’s orchestration of four movements from his Le tombeau de Couperin, and it was an auspicious beginning to Moull’s job interview.
From the Prelude, which was at once lush and sparkling, through the familiar ambulatory gait of the Forlane, Moull achieved in the Menuet the highlight of his reading. In the Menuet he gave beautiful attention to detail and the architecture of the movement, with elegant and colorful phrasings throughout.
A very regrettable error in the publishing of the printed program, which predicted five total movements to the work, made virtually all of the audience wait quizzically after the Rigaudon’s grand finale. Moull would later make light of the problem in speaking with the audience.
The evening’s guest artist was cellist Suren Bagratuni, who clearly swept the audience off its collective feet, and into a standing ovation, after his bold and musical performance of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme.
Bagratuni’s playing was assured and Romantic in feeling in the Russian master’s singingly emotional melodies, from the sweetly delicate to the last variation’s diabolical virtuosity. He clearly “owned” the work, bringing out the lyrical and heroic in this rhapsodic tour de force, a symphonic delight hung on the hook of a late 18 th century melody.
After intermission, Moull returned to conduct another orchestration of a keyboard work, this time Debussy’s evocative “Claire de lune,” given orchestral life by arranger Arthur Luck.
Moull took this expansive work at a somewhat faster tempo than might have been expected, not allowing the orchestra (or the audience) to linger over the melodic nuances, or let them wash over them as so many exquisite piano interpreters do. His was, however, a very sonorous journey through the piece, emphasizing the colors of Luck’s arrangement over the mystical journeys of the extended lyrical lines.
The concert ended with the expected symphony, Mendelssohn’s fourth, given the title “The Italian.” Moull’s energetic, direct, forward-driven approach, which was evident all evening, coupled with a clearly well-rehearsed and prepared orchestra, gave a scintillating performance.
In the Andante, the composer’s vision of the religious pilgrims he saw while visiting the Mediterranean country, were clearly taking brisk steps in Moull’s version, but the movement was lively and pleasing. In the finale, the exciting Saltarello, Moull set a tempo that was devilishly fast. There were times when the strings and winds could keep up and be perfectly in sync, but unfortunately these were contrasted with times in which they couldn’t.
Nevertheless, the audience’s second standing ovation of the evening showed they were pleased with what they had heard.