MSO takes lively foray into underworld

20. Feb. 2011 – The Memphis Symphony Orchestra has gone to hell.

And it's all good.

Saturday night's Masterworks concert at The Cannon Center for the Performing Arts was a splendid tour of the underworld viewed through the musical minds of Stravinsky, Offenbach and Miguel del Aguila.

The concert, themed "Firebird & the Infernal Dance," was a lively foray led by guest conductor Eckart Preu, who brought energy and wit to one of the MSO's most consistent and satisfying outings.

The opening work, Offenbach's overture to "Orpheus in the Underworld," showed a romantic Hades lustily venturing into, as Preu said, satire and farce. The final Galop widely used as music for the can-can was gilded by the appearance of four coquettes from Ballet Memphis who obliged the audience with some amusing high kicks and hijinks. If this is the devil's work, then bring it on!

But the concert was not all hellacious.

The next piece had no brimstone allusions, although Chopin's "Piano Concerto No. 1" is a fiendishly difficult piece. Happily, guest soloist Orion Weiss took command of the Cannon's Steinway and wrought an utterly lovely performance. His fingers were one with the keyboard and the notes cascaded with a beauty both tender and thunderous.

After intermission, it was back to perdition with the darkly hilarious "Conga-Line in Hell" composed by Aguila in 1994. It's "a fun piece" as Preu said, and indeed, the minimal orchestra romped the Latin beats and vivid dances as if trying to bring some brio to a melancholy bar. The conga line of the piece may have been doomed, but the performance made you want to shout "Amen!"

The final work of the evening was Stravinsky's Suite from "The Firebird" (1919 Revision), a piece of exquisite beauty and frightening fierceness.

The orchestra was in fine form throughout the evening, sounding as good as it ever has. It sustained balance among sections and kept a consistent excellence, whether large and loud or soft and sweet.

The inspiration may have been infernal, but certainly the nether regions brought out the best of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

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