As temperatures drop, however slightly, and school goes back into session, the cultural season also begins.
The Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, conducted by music director Timothy Muffitt, opened its new season Thursday at the River Center Theatre with two massive Romantic masterworks plus a one-movement, easy-to-consume contemporary piece that recalls Hollywood’s classic film scores.
Guest artist Cho-Liang Lin, a Taiwanese violinist, joined the ensemble for Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major. Composed in 1878, the concerto is among this often anguished composer’s more lighthearted works.
To begin with, the concerto is in a major key. It’s also in D, a great key for bowed stringed instruments. Tuning for violin, viola, violincello and double bass includes an open D string among the instruments’ four strings.
Ironically, Russian composer Tchaikovsky wrote his comparatively bright violin concerto following a catastrophic marriage and his attempted suicide.
As packed as Tchaikovsky’s concerto is with the bravura fiddling that’s been wowing audiences since the late 19th century, its challenges were a piece of cake for soloist Lin. At 52, he’s in his itinerant virtuoso prime. Lin’s lengthy list of international concert dates suggests he’s played the Tchaikovsky concerto dozens of times.
Lin played one of the most beloved melodies in concerto literature during the Tchaikovsky concerto’s first movement before dashing off one technical feat after another, including an especially impressive theme and variations featuring busy self-accompaniment.
Perhaps there’s too much work for a soloist performing the Tchaikovsky concerto to engage in extracurricular showmanship. Lin, to his credit, simply played the music, exhibiting precise tonality and, even in his instrument’s highest register, resonant, auditorium-filling power and tone.
The River Center audience burst into sustained applause after Lin and the orchestra played the concerto’s first movement. However entertained or moved concertgoers may have been, that’s not proper concert etiquette.
When the reaction subsided, Lin stepped over concert-hall etiquette himself. He told the audience that there were two more movements of the concerto left to play. The soloist and conductor then appeared to have a discussion. With no break between the second and third movements, the audience had no choice but to save its several minutes of applause until the concerto’s blistering finale reached its final notes.
Symphony No. 1 in C minor by Johannes Brahms, Tchaikovsky’s German contemporary, ruled the concert’s second half. The piece begins with suspense as the timpani pounds a heartbeat pulse. Brahms, an admirer of another German who made his way to Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven, reflects the weight and drama of his predecessor’s music.
Muffitt and the orchestra played a forceful rendition of the Brahms symphony’s epic five movements. A succession of small, repeating patterns combine to build the massive first movement. The work’s lighter, elegant second movement turned almost pastoral.
Energy and tempo subsequently build in the symphony, especially in the finale. The music shifts from C minor to C major, and, echoing Beethoven again, Brahms employs an uplifting melody modeled after Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s just the sort of Romantic warhorse Muffitt and the Baton Rouge Symphony hurl themselves so wholeheartedly into.
Contemporary composer Kevin Puts’ “Millennium Canons,” a work commissioned in recognition of the new millennium, opened the concert with brass- and French horn-powered fanfare.