REVIEW: Rockin' with the TSO

By Robert Bruce Smith

Saturday night’s Civic Auditorium performance by the Tupelo Symphony Ortchestra was utterly unlike any other in its 38-year existance.

Though the traditional first half offered well-performed symphonic and choral fare by Charles Ives, Camille Saint-Saens, Ludwig van Beethoven, John Rutter, and Aaron Copeland, the second half was devoted entirely to “Rock Concerto,” an extended classical/rock ‘n’ roll extraviganza by the enormously talented Russian-American violin virtuoso, Alexander Markov.

Conducted by TSO music director Steven Byess, and spotlighting Markov himslef as instrumental soloist, Saturday evening also featured the Itawamba Junior College Chorus, Tupelo Symphony Children’s Chorus, as well as Markov’s own rock band from New York.

Markov initially appeared – in traditional white-tie-and-tails – near the top of the program, to perform Camile Saint-Saens’ virtuoso showpiece, “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso,” for violin and orchestra.

After intermission, a radically transformed Alexander Markov reemerged onstage, waving his golden hi-tech violin, and accompanied by band members Neal Coomer, vocalist; Ivan Bodley, electric bass; plus Gregg Gerson, percussion.

Trading formal attire for the wonderfully eclectic wardrobe of a true rocker, Markov wore tight black- leather pants and an elaborate ruffled cravat that spilled out the front of his knee-length purple velvet coat.

Behind and around him were gathered 148 singers and about 80 instrumentalists to perform the U.S. debut of “Rock Concerto,” written in collaboration with James V. Remington, and lyricist/vocalist Neal Coomer. Remington also desinged the glittering 6-string electric violin Markov uses with such spellbinding effect during rock performances.

From the wild opening chords and hard-driving rock rhythms it was obvious this was going to be a new and unique musical experience for many TSO patrons. The Civic Auditorium was filled almost to capacity, with a highly diverse and multigenerational crowd. Watching the music’s effect on different individuals and age groups was almost as interesting as listening to the concerto itself.

A 38-minute work of three movements, many moods, and brilliant improvisations by Markov and band members, the concerto uses music and lyrics to narrate a series of progressions, from painful uncertainty to ultimate truth. Included also are some surprising visual effects, especially one section when Markov performs in total darkness using an LED-lit violin bow.

Gifted not only with world-class musical talent but with tremendous carisma and personal empathy as well, Markov seems to light up any stage he appears on. Certainly his many friends in Northeast Mississippi wish him and his band well when “Rock Concerto” debuts at Carneigie Hall in New York City next October.