ORONO — It’s likely that a large part of the audience at Sunday’s Bangor Symphony Orchestra concert at the Collins Center for the Arts didn’t know what they were in store for that afternoon. A concert that began with a note of muted beauty revealed itself to be, by the end, a joyous, life-affirming event, that only underscored what a treasure eastern Maine has in its orchestra.
If we didn’t already know how lucky we are to have Lucas Richman as our maestro, we most certainly do now. The closing piece, Richman’s own “In the Day When I Cried Out,” was a show-stopping, emotionally thrilling paean, inspiring tears in the eyes of more than one audience member. A gospel-infused setting of the Psalm of David, “In the Day” featured gorgeous solos from soprano Jennifer Barnett, the soulful alto Kelly Caufield of Portland, the stirring baritone Ralph Cato, and Bangor’s own Ben Layman, a dramatic tenor with a big voice that can soar above an orchestra and a 120-person strong choir.
The piece is punctuated by Leonard Bernstein-like flourishes, before moving into an extended call-and-response ending that brought the audience to its feet — and brought genuine cheers and shouts and palpable excitement. The audience was rewarded with an encore of Richman’s Grammy Award-winning piece, “Baba Yetu,” a setting of the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili, composed by Christopher Tin, which was, in all likelihood, the first time a djembe drum has been featured on a BSO stage. Richman’s piece and the encore were two of the most fun, stirring performances the BSO has given in recent history, and one that will be remembered by all in attendance in years to come.
That was the ending of the concert, however; it began with a solemn reading of Richman’s arrangement of a 12th century piece by Hildegard von Bingen, one of the earliest existing pieces of composed music and a rare performance from a female composer. A long, low drone from the cellos gave it a sense of foreboding, with a tension that builds and is very slowly released. Laura Gallucci’s evocative viola solo was particularly effective.
The Mendelssohn symphony was pleasant enough, ending on a big, dynamic note and producing a lovely, measured performance from the woodwinds. The second half of the concert allowed the University Singers and Oratorio Society to shine, under the direction of Ludlow Hallman and Dennis Cox. An uneven but often very pretty take on Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden proffered a magnificent solo from baritone Cato. The Bach was followed by an intense, dramatic performance of Bruckner’s Psalm 150, which hammered home its religious sturm und drang, and stood in stark contrast to Richman’s joyful, propulsive closing piece.
Quibbles about the Bach and Bruckner aside, Sunday’s concert put delightful punctuation on a season that has been eclectic, interesting and often deeply moving. The BSO made a wise, prescient choice in Richman. He has proved in a relatively short amount of time that the orchestra could very easily be taken from an institution that existed somewhere in the middle of the 20th century to one that exists squarely in 2011 and beyond. One can only feel excited about what the future holds.