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Austin Symphony Orchestra: Feast of Voices

The ASO and Chorus Austin combined forces for an evening of music that was gorgeous, sensual, and sometimes hall-shaking

February 15, 2018

Combination was the theme of an evening of gorgeous, sensual, and sometimes hall-shaking music by the Austin Symphony and Chorus Austin, which offered everything from the barely audible sigh of a yearning lover to the bursting entreaties of the devout.

Combination was the theme of an evening of gorgeous, sensual, and sometimes hall-shaking music by the Austin Symphony and Chorus Austin, which offered everything from the barely audible sigh of a yearning lover to the bursting entreaties of the devout.

Four selections interwove overlapping elements. A pair of pieces by Anton Bruckner, two adapted orchestrations, and two works that hearkened the listener to fields and flowers imbued musical moments that built from the wistful to the exotic to the full-bore passion of more than 200 musicians and chorus in a blast of exuberant sound.

Under the baton of Maestro Peter Bay, who always looks as if he’s the happiest man in the auditorium (he practically dances atop the dais), the symphony opened with Bruckner’s orchestration of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor (“Pathétique”). This is the first professional airing of Bruckner’s composition, which only came into public possession in 2014. In what was essentially a bit of homework for Bruckner, set by his teacher Otto Kitzler in 1862 and secreted away in Kitzler’s “Study Book,” Bruckner’s orchestration captures the drama and power, intrigue and delicacy of Beethoven’s concerto.

The movement calls for a combination of Grave, then Allegro di molto e con brio, slow and solemn then quick and vigorous, and the orchestra delivered. Strings pulsed rhythmically under a dark melody or ratcheted up the tension with an insistent buzz; rapid-fire arpeggiated runs by the reeds and woodwinds energized and, most Beethovenian, the music felt as if it posed some formidable, existential question.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi (Flower of the Field) followed, featuring the delightful Bruce Williams on viola. The singers of Chorus Austin added an ethereal backing to the violist and a pared-down orchestra. Standing atop risers set far, far upstage, the chorus sang sounds, not words, sometimes creating vastness without loudness, other times combining with the musicians to fill the auditorium with a sensuality so intense and delicate that it was as if the artists were not even playing.

Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of Gustav Mahler’s What the Wild Flowers Tell Me (the second movement from his massive Symphony No. 3 in D minor) offered another pretty piece for the ASO, whose plucked strings and undulating, swaying melody complemented a movement of un-Mahler-like lightness.

Those three relatively quiet selections were swept aside by Bruckner’s opening salvo of his Te Deum, unleashing the chorus with a sonic boom, a wall of sound. Mostly a joyful setting of sacred text, there were moments of darkness – a palpable sense of threat drove the Aeterna fac cum sanctis – resolved in an ultimate outpouring of emotion. The chorus earned a well-deserved thumbs-up from its director, Ryan Heller, for a controlled, nuanced, passionate performance.

Hats off, too, to oboist Ian Davidson, who provided minor combinations of his own, notably the opening and closing duets with violist Williams in Flos Campi, as lead-in to the Mahler/Britten, and teasing pleasing notes in the Te Deum. Plus, if you ever wondered how to tune your orchestra, seek out the oboist.