There were lots of new things about Sunday’s Bangor Symphony Orchestra concert at the Collins Center for the Arts on Sunday. A new season, the 115th in the orchestra’s long history. A new music director, in the eminently personable and talented Lucas Richman. A new focus on more contemporary and lesser-known works, such as the pieces by Leonard Bernstein, John Corigliano and Aaron Copland performed during the concert. And, a new outlook — one that’s progressive, fresh and putting a lot of smiles on the faces of musicians and audience members alike.
Kicking off on a rousing note, the orchestra began with the “Promenade Overture” by Corigliano, in which the stage starts off empty save for the percussionists, and gradually fills as the musicians file in by section. It was a lighthearted way to start the show, with its shimmering piccolo trills and fanfares. Tuba player Bob Gallon got a special round of applause as he came in last, playing the massive instrument with brassy gusto and gamely providing comic relief.
Second on the bill was a lithe reading of Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture,” a big, warm, lyrical tribute to music students. This was followed by the centerpiece of the concert, the performance of “Lincoln Portrait” by the great American composer Aaron Copland, with special narrator, Peter Mark Richman, Lucas’ father. It begins with a stirring first movement and progresses into a freewheeling, folk-tinged sketch of 19th century American life, in classic Copland fashion. With his stately, measured intonation while reading Lincoln’s words, the elder Richman evoked the kind of stirring, classic patriotism that, in an increasingly unpleasant election year, is like a breath of fresh air.
The BSO sounded stronger and more confident than it has in years — the closing fanfare of “Lincoln Portrait” was the loudest I’ve heard the orchestra ever sound. It is clear that not only was the concert well rehearsed, but Richman already has developed a rapport with the musicians that has brought out a much-needed level of eloquence and dynamism. The lack of cohesion and restlessness of the past few seasons now can be set aside since a strong musical leader has arrived to give shape and focus to the orchestra.
An impassioned reading by concertmaster Trond Saeverud of Ernest Bloch’s “Nigun” from his “Baal Shem Suite” opened the second half of the concert. Though brief, slower and more cerebral when compared to the rest of the programming, it was a visceral, emotive break from the often-boisterous tone of the concert. Richman chose “Nigun” to honor his childhood friend Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was slain eight years ago while on assignment in the Middle East. Daniel Pearl World Music Days take place during the month of October; this is the first year the BSO has participated.
The final piece, a suite of songs from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” was just the kind of closing note needed to underscore what a fun season the 2010-11 year is shaping up to be. The alternately soaring and falling jazz-inflected melodies of Bernstein’s masterpiece are definitively American, instantly recognizable and still feel contemporary. A standing ovation meant Richman called for an encore, and so the orchestra zoomed full-tilt through Bernstein’s overture from “Candide,” as an audience member commented as people filed out of the CCA — when was the last time you heard the Bangor Symphony Orchestra sound so happy?