Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra begins its season on an amazing high note
There are concerts so satisfying in their first halves that the music post-intermission seems superfluous. And there are concerts that don’t get going till, well, the encores. But opening its 2011-2012 season Saturday evening at the Michigan Theater, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Music Director Arie Lipsky, flew high to start and then higher to finish. It topped a first half of brassy Bolcom and soulful Schumann with a stupendous, nuanced reading of Shostakovich’s powerful Symphony No. 5. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the orchestra play better.
It was a concert that went from rags to riches, though there was nothing tatty about William Bolcom’s “Ragomania - A Classic Festival Overture,” which began the evening. This homage to Eubie Blake and the memory of Gershwin is still fresh and perky and suavely syncopated nearly 30 years after its composition by Ann Arbor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, in attendance to hear the work and take a bow. The orchestra was clearly having fun with “Ragomania’s” kaleidoscope of light-footed hoofing, lyricism and top brass; it was impossible not to join them.
It was impossible, too, not to be involved in the work that followed, Schumann’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in A Minor, Op. 129. Julie Albers made a welcome return to the orchestra as soloist. The dark hues of her playing and its emotional veracity were moving; the fleetness of her passagework and the fineness of her rhythmic shaping—matched beautifully by the orchestra—were electrifying.
Albers has said her favorite moment in the piece is the transition from the first to the second movement. It was indeed beautiful. But I think I would not have been alone in singling out as a high point her second-movement duet with A2SO cellist Sarah Cleveland. It is such gorgeous writing. And it was such gorgeous, throat-catching playing. There were times in the concerto when the orchestral playing was less dynamically interesting that one might have wished or when its repartee with Albers seemed too much by rote. But there was nothing routine or unattended to in its Shostakovich. On the contrary, the orchestra played here with unwavering focus, and the performance merited unwavering attention, from first note to last.
Conducting, as is his habit, without a score, Lipsky laid out the remarkable journey of the Shostakovich fifth with perfect pacing and perfect pitch for its arc, its colors and its foundational materials, which reappear, here as background, here as foreground, ever transforming, ever recurring. The orchestral playing was stellar, conveying the slithering, sensuous qualities of the first movement, the sardonic qualities of the second, the weary endless exhale of the third and the towering sense of the universe vibrating of the last. The solo playing—from concertmaster Aaron Berofsky, from winds, from brass, from harp, and on and on—was of the highest order.
If this is how the A2SO can begin the season, think what wonders lie ahead.