Sparks virtually soared over every one of the 77 musicians on the stage of Tucson Convention Center’s Music Hall in mid-November. Solo pianist Joyce Yang segued perfectly into the downbeat of visiting conductor Jessica Cottis, and the two meshed like a finely engineered Swiss watch. The piano concerto was “Piano Concerto,” by Jonathan Leshnoff, a work Yang had known and followed in utero until its completion as a joint commission of the Tucson and Kansas City Symphonies.

Based on Jewish mysticism and spirituality that everything has a soul — human, animal, plant and the inanimate — the work sparkles with incredibly difficult technical demands, something this pianist has long been master of. And contrasts these fireworks with slower, softer passages — the soul of a stone? Leshnoff describes the piece as “written with very simple rhythms and melodies. It is up to the artist to connect her mind and essence with the music that will bring these simple structures to full, breathing life.” Yang certainly accomplished what the composer had in mind, and probably more.

Cottis is a most physical conductor, with all body parts in play and alive. One can appreciate her physicality of communication even from the audience’s view. From her “peppermint-twist” stoops to the high reach of the left hand, she signals cues unmistakably as well as an “in charge” manner, and the musicians more than respond. “Bundle of energy” doesn’t do her justice. And it was most evident during the “Big” piece of the concert, the second half “Scheherazade,” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Let’s face it, the piece is so “tried and true” and repetitious that, in less skillful hands, it can dangerously skirt the trite. The composer helps immensely — being the brilliant and consummate orchestrator he was — by moving about the entire ensemble passing out the themes. But there are two elements of music not totally controllable by the composer — tempo and dynamics. By slightly exaggerating both, Cottis built on Rimsky-Korsakov’s deft use of all the voices of the orchestra, making the solo flute and violin even more poignant in contrast. Cottis worked like a trouper to make it all happen. The audience was suitably impressed and demonstrative.

The third piece on the program was another of Music Director Gomez’s Latin flavorings, Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Andean Elegy.” Mixing of cultures is evidence as she combines her Peruvian heritage and folk music with the rags of Scott Joplin and the minuets of the sons of J.S. Bach. As the composer writes, “Elegia Andina / (Andean Elegy) is one of my first written-down compositions to explore what it means to be of several ethnic persuasions of several minds.” Having seen the Andes mostly from the air, this reviewer is not in a position to remember scenes that may be evoked by the music, but it certainly could be enjoyed without the immediately visceral. It was an enjoyable addition to the concert.

Admittedly, there was a lot of “modern” music on the program, but from the opening bars of the “Elegy,” the audience seemed seduced into it no matter if 21st century or earlier in origin. So, to my readers who occasionally complain about “modern” or “atonal” music, I offer the tagline of the 2-minute early morning daily National Public Radio show, Composer’s Notebook: “At one time, all music was new.”

The Classic Series continues on Dec. 10 and 12 with “The Thrill of Tchaikovsky.” Music Director José Luis Gomez returns to the podium with Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien,” as well as Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival Overture,” Respighi’s “Roman Festivals,” and the “William Tell Overture” by Rossini. Information and tickets at 520-882-8585 and

Dr. Behnke may be contacted at

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