When I arrived during the 1980s, the Austin Symphony was OK.
Fine artists. Respectable programs. Perhaps too much emphasis on visiting marquee soloists, but that’s what the group’s leaders felt sold tickets.
It was missing two crucial ingredients: Peter Bay and the Long Center.
After a season-long audition process, Bay became music director and conductor in 1998. Instantly, the sun came out from behind the musical clouds. Young, friendly and charismatic, Bay was a perfect fit for Austin. He raised standards and — carefully at first, given the group’s inherent traditionalism — expanded the programming. He’s been the symphony’s top attraction ever since.
Trouble was, the ensemble still played at UT’s Bass Concert Hall, an excellent place for many types of performance, but not this group’s best friend. The artists struggled to overcome its vast arid volumes. (Those acoustical conditions have since been adjusted.)
In 2008, the symphony moved over to the Long Center, a remake of the 1959 Palmer Auditorium. No group benefited more from this new anchor for the arts than the city’s orchestra. Warm, intimate and embracing, the center’s Dell Hall made all the difference redefining the symphony’s now expanded range of sounds.
I was reminded of this evolution during the past three weeks when I heard the symphony three times. The group’s first ever attempt at Gustav Mahler‘s epic Symphony No. 6 was spun into 80 uninterrupted minutes of sonic gold. Bay did not shy away from the more modern elements in this piece that is still somewhat moored in the Romantic era. It was exhausting — in a good way — just to listen to it. I can’t imagine what it was like to conduct or play it.
The next week, the symphony sounded, correctly, more modest playing Wolfgang Mozart in tandem with Ballet Austin‘s merry and bright “The Magic Flute.” This time, Bay’s job was to keep the dancing afloat without overwhelming the night with music, also to help us to forget we were not hearing the human voices from the operatic version. The artists on the stage and in the pit collaborated as if part of one happy Mozartian family.
The third week, the symphony returned to a mixed bill, this time of Aaron Copland, John Corigliano and Antonin Dvorák. The theme appeared to be patriotism or perhaps nationalism, or something along those lines, but not just of the American kind, since Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8 — expertly rendered — sounds quite European, in fact Bohemian. The two highlights turned out to be the Copland numbers, “Lincoln Portrait” and the Clarinet Concerto, the first with rousing narration by Gloria Quinlan, the second with an astounding solo from the symphony’s principal clarinetist, Stephen Gerko.
I’m glad I lived in Austin during the 1980s and ’90s. But some things just get better with age. The Austin Symphony is one of them.