New conductor's mark obvious at season-opening SSO concert

15. Oct. 2005 – A new era began for the Stamford Symphony as Eckart Preu delivered his first program as music director of the orchestra last Saturday evening. The event had a spectacular polish and was distinctive in many ways that rewarded the large audience that braved a soaking rain, many in particularly festive attire, to attend.

The program began with Glinka's "Russlan and Ludmilla Overture." Preu used a wide range of gestures and cues, and showed his strong musical conviction to be both helpful and inspiring. It is fascinating to hear how the orchestral sound changes with a new permanent conductor; it has a new edge.

Preu enjoys including pieces not listed on the program, a feature that creates a feeling of spontaneity. For this program he added the "Vocalize" by Rachmaninoff, featuring the central clarinet solo played by Jon Manasse as a contrast to the festive Glinka overture.

Joyce Yang joined the orchestra for the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. This is the first time I have heard this 19-year-old silver medal winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, who has created a stir in the classical music community. For all this attention there is something quite special in her playing. She takes crazy chances and has a sophisticated musical sense of humor, but can also be tender and loves to look in at the orchestra to connect during ensemble passages. In short, the Tchaikovsky is a great piece for her to play. With her range of attitudes the concerto quickly (and rightly) became about juxtapositions rather than display. She deserved her standing ovation.

Preu addressed the audience from the podium twice during the program. He is articulate and quite amusing. Referring to the relationship between the orchestra and himself, he said they are "still dating" in the sense that they are both eager to display their "good sides to one another." Beyond that he pulled off something I have never seen before. With all the last-minute chaos and musical details of a performance in mind, it is risky and challenging for a conductor to thank corporate support from the podium -- usually someone else does this. But in detailed appreciations of Highgrove and Xerox for their contributions toward this event, and later in drawing our attention to the "Paint the Town Pink" efforts of Stamford Hospital, it became clear that he will succeed in creating a new, and very immediate, bond between the community and the orchestra.

After intermission we heard Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite." This was an opportunity for the orchestra to extend itself in welcoming in the new era. Preu later acknowledged 10 soloists and sections with standing recognitions. For me, nothing topped Michael Finn's poignant and quietly dancing bassoon solo in the lullaby, but the moments of transition right before the finale -- played almost niente with gorgeous color by the section strings, showing that an ensemble can project a quietness that gives one chills -- came close.

Preu is an impressive and charismatic musician, and he orchestrated a high-quality event. The concert felt natural and relaxed, and was exactly the kind of event that you would want to share with friends. This is the real thing. It is high-quality classical music that feels young and inspired.

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