The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra opened its 2004-2005 season Saturday night, with a delightful concert, providing a fresh start with a new conductor at a new venue. Given the orchestra's prolonged financial problems, the general buzz of optimism felt at the concert and all of these much-wished-for new beginnings were things one feared might never take place.
This was the inaugural classical concert for Patrick Flynn as the new Conductor and Music Director, and as such there was much interest to see in what direction he would take the orchestra. He seems wisely to have programmed works in these early concerts that can grow his relationship with the orchestra and the audience.
The beautifully restored Temple Theatre will be a great new home for the orchestra, allowing it to expand to what Flynn called a "large-ish" size, and therefore expand its repertoire beyond that possible in the churches in which it played in recent seasons. The red carpet was literally rolled out in front of the Theatre, burgundy-jacketed white-gloved ushers were on hand to seat the audience, and quite surprisingly (and most unusually) popcorn and vodka were permitted in the auditorium. ;Walking in past the long line at the outdoor ticket window raised the question of how well that will be received during the dead of winter, though.
Flynn opened the concert with Verdi's Overture to La Forza del Destino, and with smiles, nods, and direct eye contact with the players, brought from them a crisp, energetic, well disciplined reading. With his baton-less conducting, he expertly shaped myriad contrasts inside the work -- light and dark, loud and soft, lyrical and percussive, from single line simplicity to filigree-like complexity. In several places, he brought the orchestra down to an exquisite whisper that spoke volumes in color and drama. These most quiet of passages unfortunately had to compete with the hall's blatantly noisy air conditioning system, a battle that was most often lost.
Next came the evening's guest artist, violin prodigy Eugene Ugorski, a San Diego ninth-grader who has astonished many with his prodigious abilities, performing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. In the first movement, he was technically facile, demonstrating a good ear for articulation, phrasing, and lyrical playing.
The orchestra's poster advertising this concert and Ugorski described him in huge letters as "Brilliant. Passionate. 15 years old." His age is undeniable, and his technical skills clearly shine, but passionate was not the word that came to mind, particularly in his reading of the second movement. While there was much sensitive and beautiful playing, passionate is a virtue that may come into his interpretation in 10 or 15 years.
In the finale movement, Flynn took Mendelssohn's marking of "Allegro molto vivace" quite literally, and in this flurry of speed, Ugorski almost had enough technical virtuosity to make it work. Flynn throughout was totally involved with the nexus of composer, score, orchestra, and soloist, leading a sprightly and delicious accompaniment.
After intermission, Flynn returned to the stage and acknowledged the orchestra's turn-around, and praised the orchestra members for sticking with it during the difficult periods. However, lest anyone get the wrong idea, the crisis weathered by the organization was merely one of too few tickets bought and not enough contributions raised. The musical quality, which Flynn seems poised to continue, never slumped. Also, while a strong core of players has stayed through the lean years, last year and this there have been a number of new faces in the orchestra.
Flynn concluded the evening with Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, braving what he feared might be an audience response of "Oh not that old thing again!" His answer was to approach the work in as authentic and faithful interpretation to the composer's wishes as possible, thus, in his words, offering up a "newly polished gem." Flynn's approach was one of delicately phrased and wonderfully crafted nuance, instilling life, great energy, and discipline. There was no obviously weak section in the orchestra, as Flynn interwove them into the complex fabric of the work's architecture.
Given a choice, it seems that Flynn will come down on the side of a brisk tempo, which he seems to be able to accomplish without losing or de-emphasizing the lyrical and dramatic points he also wishes to make.
The community support that has gotten the orchestra this far on the road to recovery must continue. For them to drift back to their previous apathy would be an appalling crime. If what was served up Saturday night is what we can expect from Flynn and the orchestra in the coming concerts and seasons, it is very exciting to think where and how far they may go.