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Music review: Austin Symphony Orchestra and Gustavo Romero

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(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)

The Austin Symphony Orchestra marked the beginning of its new season this weekend at the Long Center, with something new, something borrowed, and something— Russian.

The “something new” came courtesy Kevin Puts, the one-time Austinite and now Pulitzer-Prize winning composer. Puts’ “This Noble Company” is a recent work written as a processional —“Pomp and Circumstance” reimagined with American motifs instead of British ones. 8370140-lg-640x428

It’s a handsome work, with a strong attempt to bring something new into the space owned by that, now tired, Elgar piece — although it begins with a theme in the strings that’s worryingly transparent. Gradually complexities enter, and the baldly patriotic theme gives way into some dissonant flashes and even a violin solo that manages to pull at the most hardened heart strings. Perhaps not one of Puts’ very best (see his quartet, “Credo”), but a generously beautiful performance of this solid new work, by Conductor Peter Bay and the ASO.

Something borrowed. Well, that would be pianist Gustavo Romero, who graced the Austin stage after soloist Andre Watts canceled his performance, citing a wrist injury. (Watts has been grappling with a similar issue for years.) If the audience was sorry to lose Watts’ flair, Romero, a concert piani​st who also teaches at University of North Texas, proved to be a serious contender.

His Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 was stylish and expressive. Romero loves to take time, and the result was a first movement that belonged to him alone, with clear articulation and a dramatic cadenza.

But one can also overdo it, making the silence predictable. The orchestra never seemed to quite get ahold of this work adding the drama and tension it required, and after his spectacular opening, Romero’s work felt sleepy instead of intense.

Romero’s encore, however, was a work of otherworldly beauty, a piece by a Turkish composer Fazil Say, called “Black Earth.” It alternated between conventionally Romantic motifs and an iconic middle-eastern theme, accentuated by Romero reaching his hand into the piano’s guts to deaden the string and create an otherworldly sound. It was mystical.

Something Russian came next and it was well worth waiting for. Ad agencies are in the business of labeling anything that moves “epic.”  Meanwhile, there isn’t even much music that could still be called epic in the strict sense of the term. That’s where Rachmaninoff’s “Symphony No. 2” comes in — an actual artistic effort that earns the descriptor.

There’s was so much to feast on here, and Bay and company had the kitchen firing on all burners.  This was the work the ASO seemed most charged up to play and it was a crisp, energetic performance — utterly sympathetic to the work’s complicated demands of multiple voices and endless color.

Yes, the Adagio now sounds like a piece of cornball Hollywood in its golden age, but it’s easy to forgive the composer when the ASO is busy thoroughly punching above its weight, and giving this work its due.

Next month’s ASO concert features violinist In Mo Yang and Brahms’ 3rd Symphony Oct. 16-17. www.austinsymphony.org


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