The mighty Austin Symphony is here to save the day

Now that the Austin Symphony has consummated Part 3 of its “Mighty Russians” series, it has completely shed its former reputation for underplaying big music. Almost to a fault.

Music director Peter Bay opened the formal part of the concert on Saturday with the bright and bold “Carnaval Overture” by Alexander Glazunov. Dismissed by some critics in the 20th century as merely “academic” — in other words, glib, predictable, conservative — Glazunov is also capable of great orchestral virtuosity. This rousing performance — a taste of what was to come at the Long Center for the Performing Arts — made me want to dive right into his eight completed symphonies.

Lise de la Salle. Contribute by Marco Borggreve

Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto No. 1 is all about the soloist, but the ensemble is given plenty of opportunity to introduce and expand on the piece’s gorgeous themes and variations. French pianist Lise de la Salle did not shy away from the famous concerto’s showiness. Compact and contained when off the bench, in performance, she swayed and nodded, extended her arcing arms, attacked the keyboard like an avenging angel, then caressed it like tender companion.

At times, de la Salle’s hands appeared to blur over the complicated finger work. (“I can’t imagine what the score looks like,” said a friend during intermission.) Besides technical skill and fearlessness, she added some interpretive touches, such as startling hesitations and a certain playfulness with the composer’s unconventional rhythms. These seemed to bleed right into her delicately rendered encore selection: a Debussy Prelude.

“How are they going to top that?” said the stranger seated next to me after intermission.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s “Manfred Symphony” is all over the place. Based on the poem by Lord Byron, it is at times unabashedly pictorial, at other times outright theatrical, always Gothic and so varied that a listener sometimes gets tangled in its taiga of melodies.

This is where we get to part about Austin Symphony’s plenteous sound. Remember back at Bass Concert Hall prior to 2008? “Manfred” would have shrunken to “Boyfred.” (Sorry.) Nowadays, the orchestra’s power rises, if not quite to the level of a major American ensemble, quite close, especially with the additional brass.

At times, it went right up to the point of excess. I felt a little pummeled. But that’s what “Manfred” calls for and the Austin Symphony delivered mightily.

Austin Symphony roars through ‘Mighty Russians’

It started off tentatively and ended magnificently.

“The Mighty Russians, Part II,” a full banquet of symphonic music, opened with Tchaikovsky‘s short Piano Concerto No. 3. Soloist Olga Kern, a dazzling presence onstage at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, seemed content to traipse lightly through the first exchanges with the Austin Symphony Orchestra, which sounded “mighty” right off. Then Kern paused briefly before launching into the single movement’s big solo part. If there was any doubt about her command of this music, it was instantly erased by this far-ranging venture into pianistic possibilities.

Pianist Olga Kern. Contributed

The orchestra, cut down to pit size, next gave us four snippets from Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Sleeping Beauty,” all part of the “Bluebird” pas de deux. The Austin Symphony doesn’t play much ballet music, except in support of Ballet Austin performances, so this served as a pleasant palate cleanser, especially the flights of fancy from the flute soloist (was that Rebecca Powell Garfield?).

Kern returned for Prokofiev‘s Piano Concerto No. 1 and wasted no time showing her mastery of this extraordinary fast and complicated piece. Conductor Peter Bay made a perfect partner, bringing out all the colors of the symphony while Kern produced sounds from the Long Center’s Steinway that I’ve never heard before. The audience, various in the extreme, jumped to its feet at the end.

What could top that? Wait. I had never heard Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 in concert, so I was primed. Almost immediately the rich, demonstrative music, with its flinty hints of modernism and aching references to Romanticism, swept me away. I was transported back to my youthful self first intoxicated in concert by Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” A sense of wonder returned.

This was the way to end a season, with proof positive the Austin Symphony has arrived to the point where I don’t want to miss a single concert in the future.

 

Austin Symphony picks 8 for Texas Young Composers Prize

Each year, the Austin Symphony holds the well-regarded Butler Texas Young Composers Competition. The best pieces can be heard during the Texas Young Composers Concert, to take place on June 16 at the Long Center for the Performing Arts in the big house, Dell Hall.

This year’s winners attend high schools and universities the Austin, Dallas and Houston areas. Seattle-based Ars Nova Music will publish the top five winners at arsnovamusic.com. Austin super-donors Sarah and Ernest Butler gave the $1.2 million to establish the endowment that pays for the prizes.

Peter Bay reveals decisive new season for Austin Symphony

RELATED: Previous Butler winner part of symphony’s decisive new season.

2018 Butler Texas Young Composers Competition

First Prize: Harrison Collins, “Ecstatic,” $3,000 scholarship; Little Elm High School (Little Elm)

Second Prize: Ayden Machajewski, “Nexus,” $2,500 scholarship; Round Rock High School (Round Rock)

Third Prize: Tanner Walterman, “Insidious,” $2,000 scholarship; Vista Ridge High School (Cedar Park)

Fourth Prize: David Schuler, “Uncharted Seas,” $1,500 scholarship; Rouse High School (Leander)

Fifth Prize: Catherine Hoelscher, “Memories of a Summer Evening,” $1,000 scholarship; Klein Oak High School (Houston)

Other winners

Ethan Dintzner, “Concerto in Db,” $500 scholarship; Westlake High School (Austin)

Julian Falco, “Prism Skyline,” $500 scholarship; Friendswood High School (Houston)

Amy Gravell, “In This Moment,” $500 scholarship; Texas State University (San Marcos)

Austin Symphony posts decisive new season

As Austin Symphony reveals its new season, Music Director Peter Bay talks about a decisive change in direction.

Peter Bay reveals decisive new season for Austin Symphony

“We are just going to play the pieces we ought to play,” Bay said over soup at Zax restaurant. “We got pigeon-holed into season-long themes. Now we will tie each individual concert together by a theme with variations.”

At times in past, Symphony seasons have seemed a bit tentative while trying to please key backers. Not this time out. Among the themed concerts in 2018-2019 season is an evening devoted to rarely performed works by women composers.

“They all would have had great careers,” Bay says of Clara Schumann, Lili Boulanger and Fanny Mendelsson,” if being a composer was considered a career for women back then.”

Also on that program is a piece by Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon.

The Symphony will salute the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, perhaps America’s greatest composer, with music from three of his Broadway shows as well as Divertimento for Orchestra.

It will also bring back nonagenarian pianist Leon Fleisher, who for a time lost the use of his right hand, and served as a mentor for Bay as a conductor.

“I owe him a lot,” Bays says. “He helped get my career started.”

The 2017 Texas Young Composers winner by Paul Novak, “On Buoyancy,” will advance to the Masterworks series.

“This is a first,” Bay says. “It deserved to be on the subscription program.”

Given all the tragedies in the news, the Symphony will return to another somber Requiem, this one by Johannes Brahms. Also, protean Robert Faires will reprise part of his one-actor “Henry V” for a Shakespearean program.

A dozen or so of the Masterworks selections are new to the Symphony, which has been keeping records since 1911, although spottily during a couple of decades.

ALSO READ: Archive of programs shine light on Symphony — and city’s — history.

The Austin Symphony’s 2018-2019 season contains some surprises.

And now for the complete 2018-2019 season:

MASTERWORKS I: SEPTEMBER 14/15, 2018

“The Mighty Russians Part III” Season Opener

Lise de la Salle, piano

Glazunov: Carnaval Overture, op. 45

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 1in F-sharp minor, Op. 1

Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony, Op. 58

MASTERWORKS II: OCTOBER 19/20, 2018

“Happy Birthday, Lenny!”

Bernstein/Harmon: Suite from Candide

Bernstein: Divertimento for Orchestra

Bernstein: Selections from On the Town

Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

MASTERWORKS III: NOVEMBER 30/DECEMBER 1, 2018

“Tale of Two Titans”

Orli Shaham, piano

Paul Novak: On Buoyancy (2017 Texas Young Composers winner)

Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83

MASTERWORKS IV: JANUARY 11/12, 2019

“Variation Voyage”

Leon Fleisher, piano

Ives/Schuman: Variations on “America”

Dvořák: Symphonic Variations on the Theme “I am a fiddler” for orchestra, Op. 78

Franck: Symphonic Variations, FWV 46

Britten: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, Op. 34

MASTERWORKS V: FEBRUARY 22/23, 2019

“Brahms’ Requiem”

Conspirare Symphonic Choir

Heather Phillips, soprano

Paul Tipton, baritone

Brahms: Variations on the St. Antoni Chorale, Op. 56a

(Craig Hella Johnson, conductor for Variations)

Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45

MASTERWORKS VI: MARCH 22/23, 2019

“Creative Expressions” Celebrating Women Composers

Time for Three (Nicolas Kendall, violin; Charles Yang, violin; Ranaan Meyer, double bass)

Michelle Schumann, piano

F. Mendelssohn: Overture in C Major

Boulanger: D’un matin de printemps

C.W. Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 7

Kaprálová: Suita rustica, Op. 19

Higdon: Concerto 4-3

MASTERWORKS VII: APRIL 12/13, 2019

“Champions of Austria”

William Hagen, violin

Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 4

Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in D minor

MASTERWORKS VIII: MAY 17/18, 2019

“A Shakespearean Evening”

Robert Faires, actor

Chorus Austin

Berlioz: Excerpts from Roméo et Juliette, Op. 17

Walton: Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario

SARAH AND ERNEST BUTLER POPS SERIES

POPS I: OCTOBER 27, 2018; Dell Hall

“Wizard of Oz” – Film with Orchestra

POPS II: DECEMBER 29/30, 2018; Palmer Events Center

Ella & Louis

With Byron Stripling & Carmen Bradford

POPS III: FEBRUARY 9, 2019; Dell Hall

“Singin’ in the Rain” – Film with Orchestra

POPS IV: MAY 31/JUNE 1, 2019; Palmer Events Center

The Broadway Soprano

Lisa Vroman

SPECIAL EVENTS

OCTOBER 28, 2018; AISD Performing Arts Center

Halloween Children’s Concert

DECEMBER 4, 2018; Hyde Baptist Church

Handel’s Messiah

TBD

SARAH AND ERNEST BUTLER TEXAS YOUNG COMPOSERS CONCERT

DECEMBER 2019; Austin area

Christmas in the Community

JUNE – AUGUST 2019; Hartman Concert Park

Hartman Concerts in the Park

JULY 4, 2019; Vic Mathias Shores

H-E-B Austin Symphony July 4th Concert & Fireworks

 

San Antonio Symphony capsizes again

The San Antonio Symphony, periodically threatened, has canceled the rest of its 2017-2018 season.

Over the weekend, its board of directors decided to suspend play by symphony. Its tricentennial performances this weekend will be its final ones.

Symphony Lang-Lessing
Symphony fans gather around to greet Sebastian Lang-Lessing (not pictured) as he is introduced as the new music director of the San Antonio Symphony during a brief ceremony and concert at Municipal Auditorium, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010. Bob Owen/rowen@express-news.net

Almost every year since I started reporting on the arts in the 1980s, the San Antonio Symphony has been on the brink of disaster. And I remember stories about its precarious state from my youth.

It’s one of those cases where the old-school donors always insisted it had to compete in size and quality with Houston and Dallas, but without the financial resources, foundations or corporate headquarters that fueled those ensembles. Old San Antonio just never believed they had been left behind.

Austin could never compete in those leagues and knew it, and so remained smallish, part-time and pay-per-play. At one point, discussions were underway to merge the management of the Austin Symphony and its sibling counterpart.

The most recent corporate white knight for San Antonio was H-E-B. Obviously, it didn’t work out.

The more progressive-minded forces down there thought they had solved part of the problem when they moved from the drafty, oversized Majestic Theatre — their counterpart to the Paramount Theatre, but on steroids, since SA was the big city in Texas in the 1920s — to the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, a smart project not unlike the Long Center for the Performing Arts that renovated an old, multi-purpose municipal auditorium.

In fact, some of the same design players were involved.

That clearly didn’t work either. The board needed $2.5 million to complete the season.

“We would not be able to raise that much money in such an abbreviated time,” Alice Viroslav, board chairwoman of the 78-year-old Symphony Society of San Antonio, told the Express-News.