Reviewed by Lee Shepherd
It took Scheherazade 1001 nights to enchant her listeners, while the Binghamton Philharmonic Orchestra accomplished the same feat in one evening at the opening concert of the 2018-19 season.
Saturday (Sept. 29) at The Forum in Binghamton, Maestro Daniel Hege showcased the virtuosity of the entire orchestra – as well as Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral mastery – with a performance of Scheherazade.
The four-movement work was inspired by the Arabic folk tales of One Thousand and One Nights. To say it’s a challenging piece of music is a vast understatement.
What began as a sensuous, way-up-in-the-stratosphere violin solo by concertmaster Uli Speth continued as a gorgeous duet with principal cellist Hakan Tayga. Harp joined in, then a bevy of brass and woodwind soloists and, finally, the whole ensemble creating a rainbow of dazzling musical color.
The fourth movement, in particular, was a tour de force, with trumpeters tonguing as fast as humanly possible accompanied by a frenzy of fast bowing and fingering by the strings, perfectly synchronized and executed.
As Hege pointed out, though listeners might not recognize the titles of all the pieces on the concert program, (which also included Smetana’s The Moldau and a contemporary work by Christopher Theofanidis, Rainbow Body) within a few notes, they would recognize familiar tunes they’d been humming their whole lives.
Such was the case in Scheherazade with its recognizable melodies depicting the storyteller herself, the ruthless Sultan, sweet romance, cruel treachery, redemption and other wondrous themes from fairy tales. Hats off to Hege for programming a delightful and enjoyable selection of works.
The BPO’s performance of the orchestral warhorse The Moldau was fresh and original. Close your eyes, and you were drifting down the river through woods and meadows, under looming castles and palaces and, finally, slowing as the river widened and vanished.
A word about Hege’s conducting, as seen from the audience side: His beat is concise and strong, his cues are clear and he evokes the finest from the musicians with his elegant arm movements, head gestures and body motion, all without being distracting or overly dramatic. And the BPO’s new music director certainly has the “gift of gab,” addressing the audience with witty and informative comments.
The 13-minute piece by the Houston-based Theofanidis was the real surprise of the evening. With good reason, Hege said, concert-goers are frightened when they hear a work was written in the year 2000, not 1700 or 1800. Fears were allayed, however, with the BPO’s presentation of the lyrical and listenable Rainbow Body, based on a chant, “Hail Mary, Source of Life,” by medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen.
Cellist Tayga introduced the evocative melody. The composer then presented the chant as if heard in a huge, reverberating cathedral, with various instruments blurring the sound. Throughout the piece, Theofanidis interspersed the chant with his original music and ended with a triumphant finale played by the whole orchestra, based on the Zen Buddhist idea that at the moment of death, the body changes into light that is absorbed by the universe.
Rainbow Body is a beautiful and exquisitely crafted piece of music, a real treat for a Binghamton audience, or any audience.
I can’t say this often enough: We’re so lucky to have an orchestra the caliber of the BPO contributing to Binghamton’s wealth of culture. The opening concert was a splendid start to the new season.
COMING UP: The next concert sponsored by the BPO is “An Evening of Bluegrass with Tessa Lark and Michael Thurber,” 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5 at the Doubletree by Hilton Binghamton. Visit binghamtonphilharmonic.org for ticket information.