First came the orchestra's glittering sing-along rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner," followed by American composer Samuel Barber's immensely beloved "Adagio" for Strings. A work of silvery moonbeams, rustling shadows and mysterious wonder, Barber's soothing strains seemed to enchant audience members into a suitably receptive mood for the music to come.
Equally as enchanting was the entrance - in a stunning red gown - and performance of soloist Mariangela Vacatello. A pianist of vivacious personal charm and astounding keyboard virtuosity, Vacatello lives in Italy and has recently made a well deserved splash in the rarified world of international piano competitions. Her vehicle for the evening was Prokofiev's mesmerizing, fantastically difficult Piano Concerto No. 3, which she tossed off with the kind of wit, ease and fiery abandon available only to the greatest of artists. At times, sparks almost literally flew from the TSO's mighty Steinway!
Audience and instrumentalists alike gave the triumphant pianist a prolonged ovation following the concerto's divinely stormy conclusion. After intermission, Mayor Jack Reed Jr. made a gracious speech, welcoming Vacatello to Tupelo and presenting her with a shiny key to the city.
The music of Johannes Brahms occupied the evening's second half, namely his Symphony No. 4. Requested by the orchestra members themselves and played with all the energy and imagination it deserves, this last and greatest of Brahms' four symphonies concluded a fine and worthwhile 2009-2010 TSO season.
During intermission, one of the orchestra members questioned me about TSO management's near-miraculous ability to get such incredible soloists each year. And certainly this season has been particularly memorable, with the exciting concert pianists Cecile Licad, Yakov Kasman and Mariangela Vacatello, plus the inimitable violinist Alexander Markov.
But the real miracle is the TSO's professional instrumentalists themselves, their versatility, devotion and genuine love of making live music together under Steven Byess'; skillful baton. On the day before each performance, from cities and universities all over Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas and elsewhere, TSO musicians assemble in Tupelo to recapture their magical sense of collective orchestral ensemble.
Rehearsal time is often way too short, the scores often dauntingly demanding, yet these seasoned professionals always manage to create lively, sensitive performances that are a real credit to the wonderful art they proudly serve.
"And this season we're miraculously in the black again," says TSO executive director Margaret Anne Murphey.
Bang, Wow, KaaaBoom - what more rewarding artistic conclusion can you ask in these financially troubled times!