Charlie Albright shines, Great Falls Symphony plays magical show with only a few minor hiccups
Last night the Great Falls Symphony opened its new season with a few new tweaks, and a few familiar mainstays that made for a memorable and entertaining night.
The evening started with a brief speech from GFSA Joan Schmidt welcoming the audience back and thanking everyone for their support. She then mentioned how for this show there were guests from as far as the Republic of Congo and several doctors in town from Eastern Europe, as well.
After welcoming the visitors from distant lands to stand up and be acknowledged, orchestra conductor Gordon Johnson thanked the symphony sponsors and then invited everyone in the audience to sing the Star Spangled Banner as the symphony performed our country’s national anthem, something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen done to start a show before, but a nice bit of patriotism nonetheless.
The orchestra then started in on Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre.”
In addition to lowering the lights and having principle violinist Mary Papoulis wearing a black veil as she played the part of the “devil” violinist that, like a pied piper of sorts, leads skeletons from their graves, a large screen descended from the rafters and showed an animated representation of the skeletons dancing along to the music.
It came off as fresh and different and a nice touch to go along with the crowd-pleasing piece. If you’ve never heard “Danse Macabre,” before the show Johnson described it as their “homage to Halloween,” in a sense, and it was filled with plenty of spooky sounds coming from the orchestra.
John Gemberling, principal trumpet player as well as the symphony’s stage manager, said they were a little behind on the timing with the video toward the end, but seeing as it ended with the stage going black as well as the video, I don’t think too many people noticed.
Gemberling also said they decided to use the video because they were already using it for Tuesday’s matinee they’re performing for elementary school kids in Great Falls and so they brought it to the main show, as well, as an extra interesting element. It was a nice twist that made for a solid start.
And after whetting people’s appetite, Albright came out next and tore it up on the piano, playing a light and breezy version of George Gershwin’s “Concerto in F” in front of the orchestra.
At times it felt like he was speeding along while the rest of the symphony had to try their hardest to keep up — but the entire piece has so many captivating layers that it was hardly noticeable.
And, quite frankly, even if with this piece Gershwin wanted to write something more substantial than his popular music, it still has many distinctive Gershwin-sounding melodies and movements.
So much so that it’s one of those things that becomes easy to get lost in. You close your eyes and let the mood of the sounds take you on an adventure.
If someone had not heard the piece before, however, you could forgive them if after the third movement, not knowing what they were playing next, if it was part of the same concerto or something different. Especially considering there was a roaring applause from the crowd.
It’s not exactly traditional to applaud between movements, but granted if you’ve ever heard Gershwin’s concerto, you know that the third movement ends with such a gusto that it seems like an appropriate place for people to applaud.
Albright then performed an improv piece after a standing ovation from the near sell-out crowd. The piece saw him asking for three notes from the crowd and developing a melody from those three notes.
Albright said afterward he had never performed that combination of notes before in that particular melody but that he wasn’t panicked at all because he knew where he wanted to go and had a general idea before he started about how he’d get there.
It was a jazzy number with a lot of changes in tempo and speed and I was mesmerized by it, as were many of the symphony players who got to fill in as front-row audience members for that part of the program.
Following intermission comes my only real bit of criticism with the program. After the players took the stage, Johnson introduced the next piece, Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
But, while most of Maestro Johnson’s introductions are usually short, informative and interesting, for whatever reason last night he decided to explain a bit more about each of the 10 movements.
Part of what makes Gordon such a wonderful conductor is his down-to-earth personality and the way he can describe the music in ways that everyone, whether you’re a longtime symphony season ticket holder, or a first-time attendee, can understand.
That being said, it seemed like last night he was going on a little too long with the descriptions.
Before he finished talking, I really just wanted to hear the music being played. I did appreciate knowing a little about what Gordon was talking about as each piece started, but I ended up forgetting much of the explanation anyhow and was more impacted by the music itself rather than the description of what it meant to Mussorgsky.
And, let me repeat — I find Gordon’s knowledge of the music they play second to none and I love how he fills the audience in on what they are hearing, most of the time. Last night I just wanted them to get to the piece a little quicker than they did.
And while the Great Falls Symphony is known for inviting talented guest artists to perform with the orchestra, it’s always a nice reminder to hear Gordon say that the real treasure, and the real reason to come see the shows, is the orchestra itself.
I agree wholeheartedly, even if there are a couple fewer local Great Fallsians performing in the woodwinds section this year, for various reasons. The symphony is still a product of Great Falls by Great Falls performing for Great Falls, and if you live here you can take pride in that.
That being said, if it were me I may have ended the program with Albright instead of Pictures at an Exhibition.
My reasoning would have been because it would have given the guest artist more time to perhaps do another encore if he so desired, and as a traditional way to welcome the headliner onto the stage last.
I can understand why they ended with the symphony show, however, and a big part of that is to remind people who the real stars of the show are.
That added to the fact that it’s a massive, definitively ending piece that has many strong moments, softer moments and technically challenging parts.
If they had ended with almost any other piece, it might not have worked as well because as artists you always want to end with your best material. With the level of mastery that Albright brought, topping that was a high order, but the symphony delivered on that and received a standing ovation that was very well deserved.
Finally, if you’re a classical music traditionalist who attended the show, you might have felt as if this show was a bit too modern for your liking.
“Pictures at an Exhibition” was probably the most traditional piece played all night. Besides that, you had the spooky, fun Halloween-inspired piece, and the Gershwin piece that, let’s be honest here for a second, isn’t the same type of music as Bach or Brahms or Mozart. But, for me, that’s the very reason why I enjoy going to see our symphony.
There is nothing wrong with choosing to play Gershwin over Beethoven, and I happened to love the fact that they played it because I enjoy seeing what kinds of risks our symphony are willing to take.
I’d also point to the fact that every year since I’ve started following the symphony, they’ve continued to push the boundaries for what should define a classical show. They’re not afraid to reach out and welcome guest artists who come from a classical background, or from a modern/popular music background. The only real quantifier is that the guests come prepared to perform top-notch music.
It’s this reason, and hundreds more if I really tried listing them all out, why the Great Falls Symphony continues to be one of the most interesting shows in central Montana, whether you’re a fan of symphonic music or not.
If you haven’t had a chance to see them play, make it a point to do it this year. You’ll be glad you did.
The next show is on Nov. 8. Find out more about it here.