The program began with Rossinis "William Tell Overture," certainly one of the most hackneyed warhorses in the orchestral repertoire. But under the baton of conductor Steven Amundson, the Oles handled the piece with delicacy and skill, making seamless transitions between the pieces contrasting sections. The first part of the piece in particular, featuring five cellos and two basses, was marvelous.
At the Home Concert, both of the featured soloists performed their pieces; first up was co-concertmistress Aria Peters 07, playing the first movement of Henri Vieuxtemps "Violin Concerto No. 4." Although the piece seemed at times almost to be at cross-purposes with itself, the unusual selection served Peters and her violins tone well, especially in the firework-filled cadenza.
The third piece, Michael Torkes "Bright Blue Music," was probably the best of the evening and certainly one of the most interesting pieces the orchestra has played in years. I could have listened to it multiple times and never lost the grin on my face. Torke is a synaesthete, someone whose sensory perceptions are linked, and he associates bright blue with the musical key of the piece, D major. Unlike most orchestral works, the pieces key never modulates, but always remains the same, leaving Torke free to play with rhythms and sonic effects, using the entire palette of the orchestra and then some. I have rarely heard a more affecting orchestral expression of exuberant joy, or a more completely unpredictable piece. Although the audiences response was not as enthusiastic as for "William Tell," hopefully the orchestra will continue to perform such unusual, worthy selections. Amundson claimed the music was difficult, but the orchestra made it seem not just easy, but essential.
Bassoonist Luke Varland 08 closed the first half of the concert with Carl Maria von Webers "Andante and Hungarian Rondo." Although Varlands pinkish hair and rapturous facial expressions were engaging, and his playing was impeccable, the length of the first half prevented me from giving him all of the attention he deserved.
The intermission featured a welcome development in St. Olaf concerts: flashing the lights to tell the audience to retake its seats. The length of the orchestras programs has always been its biggest fault, but this program was definitely less bloated, and the benefits of streamlining both intermission and the program itself were immediately evident in the performance of Tchaikovskys "Symphony No. 6," which formed the concerts second half. The orchestra often seems a bit sluggish by the middle of the second half, when a long tour and a long program have taken their toll, but this time the orchestra remained energetic throughout the challenging, emotional symphony, first performed just nine days before the composers death. The orchestra gave Tchaikovskys emotionalism full expression while refraining from sliding into schmaltz, and the obligatory St. Olaf standing ovation was richly deserved. Whether another encore performance of "The Dove" was really necessary is another question, but even as the orchestra tinkers with some things, its nice to know that some will never change.