REVIEW: TSO ends 39th season with a bang

TUPELO – For yet another year, Tupelo Symphony music director Steven Byess has chosen to end his orchestra’s concert season with a grandly memorable bang – in this case Sergei Rachmaninoff’s devilishly brilliant Piano Concerto No. 3.
As performed by pianist Yaron Kohlberg and the TSO last Saturday at the Link Centre, it was an undeniably fabulous and musically thrilling gesture of farewell.
Before this spectacular windup however, Saturday offered three additional explosively musical “bangs” as well.
First came the world premiere of Los Angeles composer Sara Carina Graef’s joyous orchestral showpiece, “Cooling in the Peppermint Wind.” A dizzying eruption of kaleidoscopic sonorities and wildly propulsive rhythms, “Cooling” was commissioned by the TSO last summer.
Wearing an appropriately stunning peppermint-red dress to humorously introduce her new work, Graef said its musical intent was to “bring joy” to an audience. Certainly widespread smiles throughout the hall at its conclusion seemed to indicate her hope was abundantly fulfilled.
A subtler “bang” came next, namely Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Concerto No. 3 for Violin and Orchestra, with departing TSO concertmaster J. Patrick Rafferty as solo violinist. An infectiously sunny souvenir of Mozart’s youthful brilliance, Concerto No. 3 also formed an impressive goodbye to Rafferty’s abundant skills as soloist and longtime string-section leader. His wonderfully tone in the second movement emphasized just how much he will indeed be missed.
Maurice Ravel’s riotously rhythmic “Alborado del Gracioso” (“Morning Song of the Jester”), played with fine impetuosity by the TSO and solo bassoonist Wade Irvin, concluded the program’s first half.
After intermission came Byess’s parting musical “bang.” To say pianists find the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 “technically challenging” is like saying mountaineers find Mt. Everest “kinda hard” to climb. Only the bravest and best can summit reliably, while the upward path is littered with noble failures.
Unlike climbing Mt. Everest, the Rachmaninoff Third’s difficulties are as much musical as technical. Inseparable from its dazzling pianistic fireworks is a deeply integrated three-movement musical masterpiece, shot through with exotic melodies, subtle harmonics, and astonishingly intricate soloist-orchestral collaboration.
Wielding both aspects – technical and musical – into a grandly convincing dynamic vision is what constitutes the true peak experience of “Rach 3.” Fortunately, prize winning Israeli pianist Yaron Kohlberg had the fingers, finesse and fortitude to masterfully unfold this rare wonder in Tupelo.
The TSO’s 2010-11 season has indeed been an especially distinguished and innovative one. One can only hope its much-anticipated 40th anniversary season will bring more of same.

Robert Bruce Smith