Reviewer: Lisa Purchase

Venue: The Temple Theatre

I know if I’m attending something with the name Tchaikovsky attached to it I should roll up my sleeves and expect some drama. He’s a composer who wore his heart on his sleeve, and he took full advantage of the new mid-19th century orchestral style of including trombones and tubas in the horn section, using that low brass to really bring some power. So it’s best to arrive prepared for big sound, with big emotions attached.

Saturday night’s Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra concert Tchaikovsky’s Masterpieces: An Evening with Alessio Bax lived up to these expectations, through an entire concert devoted to this singular composer.

It began with a lively Russian dance (Mazeppa: Cossack Dance) that was light on its feet. It’s a whirling party scene that spins up in register and tempo, in a style distinctly bringing to mind some classic Looney Tunes shorts. [I actually looked up whether this particular piece had been used, and ended up down a rabbit hole — so to speak — spending more than enough time re-watching some of those classical Bugs Bunny classics. This piece was not used, but several of Tchaikovsky’s were, and several other compositions in the style of this piece.] It was a fun introductory piece that got our attention right away, and swept us swiftly into the mood of the evening.

There was a break in the action as, between numbers, they wheeled out the enormous grand piano. At first I thought what a shame to have to pause right away to drag this out. But it quickly became an object of fascination as it took up some serious real estate front and center. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as rolling out a cannon, but it was pretty close. As the lid was propped wide open and the feet were screwed down into the floor, you couldn’t help but wonder what sort of piano-playing was about to take place here.

Then Alessio Bax — an international soloist with an impressively dense two-page resumé — strode out and played the pants off that piano* for 40 minutes of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Piano No.1, Op. 23, in B-flat Minor. The conversation between soloist and orchestra was beautifully balanced, trading powerful and decorative phrases back and forth. Maestro Fouad Fakhouri often looked over his shoulder at Bax, seeming to watch not only his hands but his body-language … his facial expression … his breathing … to make sure they were perfectly in synch as he brought the orchestra in for their part. It was glorious to listen to and equally glorious to watch; the soloist, the conductor, and the orchestra as one.

The first notes of this Concerto were also instantly recognizable as the opening riff to the Grammy-nominated 1981 album Hooked on Classics. [I would like to apologize at this time for my entire generation. This is the hand we were dealt; we are stuck with these indelible associations.] 

The final movement of this Concerto is to be played Allegro con fuoco … fast and with fire. And so it was. The first half of the program ended with energy; a syncopated Ukrainian tune and a grand lyrical waltz overlapping each other, dancing us out into Intermission to regroup for the second half.

At the end of Intermission the conductor shared an intimate moment with the audience, as he congratulated Concertmaster Elliot Heaton on his pending departure for the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. Maestro Fakhourki waxed sentimental about his musicians, many of whom have been with the Saginaw Symphony Orchestra for a long time and are “like family to him.” We, the audience, felt connected and included with the musicians in a shared moment.

The second half of the concert consisted entirely of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 36 in F Minor, which flew by in four expressive movements, the last of which ended as the Concerto did: enthusiastically Allegro con fuoco.

I enjoyed it all tremendously.

I’m no music critic. Clearly. I can make surface comments on it, but I avoid getting too deep into analyzing the playing or the score because I will inevitably trip myself up with wrong terminology. If I can’t really analyze the performance or the composition, what is left to review? The experience. I’m the “average Jane” in the seats, bringing you the play-by-play for what it’s like for regular folks to attend the symphony. And here’s my take on that:

Not only was this a stunning evening for listening, full of emotional and powerful music; it was wonderful for watching as well. I’ve sat in all different sections of the house to watch the orchestra over many years, and it’s a vastly different experience than merely listening to music at home on a recording. Watching the conductor and the individual musicians move together as one, to hew the music out of the air, their bows rowing the boat together, an anemone wafting with the tide … it’s like watching a huge creature, strange and magical, breathing itself into being. It’s really like nothing else I’ve witnessed.

And then there’s the collective experience. I was sitting in Row P on the main floor, and at some point was aware that I was looking across a sea of people’s heads between me and the stage. There we all were, together, sitting in the dark listening to the same thing. Experiencing the same thing at the same time. Where else do we get that experience? Sitting in the same place, facing the same way, experiencing a thing together. Church? Plays? Movies? For the most part, our entertainment and discretionary pursuits have separated us into individual experiences. It’s a rare moment these days, the collective experience.

This is a place to find the collective experience. Go and sit in the dark with other people, and hear and see and feel things together.

The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra’s next performance is next takes place next week in Bay City. The next installment of their 88th season, “A Journey Through Space and Time” is their “Music Under the Stars” collaboration with the Delta College Planetarium, Saturday February 10th at 4:30 & 6:30. Their next symphony concert is “Spirit & Virtuosity” March 30th, 8pm at the Temple Theater. The SBSO’s calendar and links to their events can be found at https://saginawbayorchestra.com/calendar/

The Temple Theater continues their Sunday Silver Screen series, and their next live event is comedienne Hannah Berner on leap-day, February 29th. Their calendar and links to events can be found at https://templetheatre.com/

* (Disclaimer: no pants were actually lost in the performing of this concert) (not that I noticed, anyway)

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