What a delight it was to hear the Bangor Symphony Orchestra in such light, lively, even insouciant form on Sunday at the University of Maine’s Collins Center for the Arts, as it worked its way through an all-American program. Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and George Gershwin were on the bill, as well as two pieces by the late Bangor composer Kay Gardner and BSO music director Lucas Richman.
Though the Barber Violin Concerto, performed with great sensitivity and skill by guest soloist Sheryl Staples, was the centerpiece of the first half of the concert, the real highlight of the afternoon was the rip-roaring good time that was “An American in Paris,” Gershwin’s wild ride through the noisy streets of Paris. It was nothing short of thrilling to hear that iconic trumpet line, as performed by Bill Whitener, echo through the concert hall — a fitting start to the BSO’s 117th season. The audience leapt to its feet at the end.
The jolt of energy Gershwin’s “Paris” brought to the afternoon is indicative of the orchestra’s renewed vitality. Sunday’s concert was the most contemporary one the BSO has performed in decades — every piece played was written in either the 20th or 21st century. Indeed, the second half of the concert began with two pieces — one written in the 1990s by Gardner and one written by Lucas Richman just this year in memory of Gardner, who died in 2002. Gardner’s piece, “Quiet Harbor,” was a meditative, evocative image of the Maine coast (Gardner lived in Stonington, as well as Bangor), while Richman’s “Isaeum” sought to capture Gardner’s spiritual interests in the goddess Isis and in music as a healing tool.
The Copland and Barber were greeted warmly, though with less visible excitement than the Gershwin. Conductor Richman’s personal connection to Copland — as a child, he wrote to and received letters from the American master — could not help but give the opening performance of “An Outdoor Overture” a sense of enthusiastic wonder. Staples is a masterful violinist — neither flashy nor understated, with a richness of tone suited to the first two movements, both warm and beautiful. Her virtuosity was on dazzling display for the final, brief, explosive movement.