By Lily Olason
This afternoon, the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra treated patrons to a performance unforgettable. Celebrating forty years of making music, and also the success and beauty of this particular season, the group offered perhaps their most daring feat yet: the megalithic works of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, “Emperor” and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D major, “Titan.”
In the spotlight was piano virtuoso Alessio Bax. Native of Italy, his solo history is prodigious and illustrious; he’s appeared before the Royal Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Japan’s NHK Symphony and the St. Petersburg Symphony to name just a measured few. From the first bars of “Emperor”'s first movement, Allegro, the scrolling resume isn’t hard to understand. Alessio is indeed an emperor, or at least a presiding force, of the keyboard. He plays with a sensitive and mechanical precision—hands (filmed by a camera fixed to the ceiling, and projected above the stage) spill like paint across the keys and infuse a vibrancy and resonant hue to a fabled score. Bax remains faithful to the ink but his delivery is a work in and of itself, hands locked into a delicate tether, right and left marching in tandem up and down and up tones and stairs. Rests punctuate sometimes wild, sometimes peaceful passages, underpinned by a receptive and talented symphony. Watching the screen was hypnotic—Bax’s hands were almost computer-esque in accuracy, yet retained the piercing glimmer and humanity of music. The second movement, Adagio un poco mosso, began slow and feathery, and by the end of the third (Rondo: Allegro ma non tropo), the work reached an acrobatic pitch, all the while the twisting and turning of Beethoven’s historic concerto helmed by a masterful soloist.
After a standing O (naturally), and Bax’s gift of his ensuing bouquet to a WSO violinist (really nice!), the symphony broke, wordlessly, for intermission.
The Orchestra rounded a magnificent, explosive season with a piece of the same nature—Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D major. According to Dr. Ryan Dudenbostel’s ever-informative program notes, the piece was initially dubbed “Titan” because it was modeled after Jean Paul’s four-volume novel of the same name. Over a decade-long editing process, most of the “programmatic references” to the novel ended up on the cutting room floor. Which is okay, because we ended up with such a (still) massive triumph. Divided into five unique movements, the enormous piece stretches from an ominous and disparate beginning through magnificent and regal horn passages, to churning darkness and back again to brassy power. Mahler goes from a running theme to tangential passages, from quoting (as Dudenbostel notes) Beethoven's (Ninth Symphony) and his own work (Songs of a Wayfarer) to paying homage to Austrian folk. Jewish folk and Frere Jacques are also found within. Technically demanding, the work is an assemblage; not only are the movements of their own, but the piece contains several features and solos: clarinet, oboe, trumpet, double bass, horn, and flute.
Playing this so beautifully well is indeed a triumph, to both individual acumen of the players and the teamwork needed to make it all fit together. I couldn’t think of a better way to end a historic season.
The WSO returns on October 16th with "All Tchaikovsky", featuring violinist Simone Porter. The list of next season's concerts will be available soon on the Whatcom Symphony website.