If Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director José Luis Gomez had dreams during the past 18 months of pandemic-enforced silence for his orchestra, it may well have been a fuerte. (strong). His dreams certainly came true last weekend when TSO played its season opening concert in the Music Hall of Tucson Convention Center. It was a fitting return; the orchestra and Gomez came to play and the audience to support, listen and enjoy. Gomez would not even have needed the traditional season opening National Anthem to bring the audience to its feet.
Gomez chose for the occasion the “Festive Overture,” by William Grant Still. This piece was recognized for its quality since birth, winning the Best Overture prize in a nationwide contest in 1944. Still was recently referred to as “The widely acknowledged Dean” of black American composers by Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times.
The “Festive Overture” is an accessible, American piece modern enough for the occasion but not so atonal as to upset the sensitivities of audiences who, like this reviewer, are all-too-firmly rooted in the 19th century. Its martial rhythms and beautiful melodies made one feel he/she was marching not only into the concert but into the season itself.
By far the most challenging piece on the program came second to the overture in the form of Astor Piazzolla’s “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.” It is challenging for the solo violinist, in this case Lara St. John, to perform and for the reviewer to capture. In her pre- concert remarks, St. John made reference to the large amount of improvisation she employs, making it difficult to know where Piazzolla ends and St. John begins. She is clearly a strong and vigorous violinist and performed at an exceptional level, earning her a number of curtain calls.
It is difficult, however, to imbue some of the very ultra-high string notes that may well be improvising, with any real emotion. It tends to make the music more of a show piece for the artist. Not to say there isn’t loads of angst and melancholy in the history of Argentina as well as the music. In fact, the “Evita” song, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” could well be retitled, “DO Cry for Me, Argentina.” This piece continues what Gomez has now made a tradition of including new and exciting Latin American music in each Classic Concert program. Piazzolla’s tangos are always a welcome addition.
The big piece on the opener’s program was the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4. This is the beginning of a more unfettered and personal work than the first three symphonies and arose from a most difficult and conflicting part of the composer’s life. He had experimented with a disastrous marriage and entered a part of his life to which even Vladimir Putin is on record. “Tchaikovsky was gay,” the Russian president said, “but Russians love him anyway.” So much for Russian generosity and gender neutrality.
The 4th is a monumental work and appropriate for so auspicious an occasion as the orchestra’s return to life. It amply demonstrated that the basic elements, honed so carefully in the recent past — strong tempi, intonation, and especially balance are all still well in evidence. The final – balance – might have been expected to suffer during the interregnum. It didn’t.
Classic Series will continue on October 15 & 17. Featured will be the Mozart “Jupiter,” the Dvořák Cello Concerto with Amit Peled, Soloist and “Dovetail Overture” by Muczynski. Information and tickets at 520-882-8585 and www.tucsonsymphony.org
Dr. Behnke is available at firstname.lastname@example.org