Jane Sibley died May 22 at age 95.
For almost 80 years, Sibley contributed to the Austin arts scene. For almost 50 of those years, hers was the last word when it came to the governance of the Austin Symphony. Steel-willed, she saved the venerable ensemble from extinction more than once and was never shy about guiding its destiny.
It is fitting, then, that the Austin Symphony fashioned its season-opening concert, curiously titled “Triple Delight,” around a seraphic requiem that also, according to a curtain speech, commemorated the victims of 9/11.
But first, the orchestra, in tandem with Chorus Austin, introduced Franz Schubert’s short, uplifting “Magnificat,” a joyous setting of the hymn. It sounded, however, this time as stiff and perfunctory as other traditional framing devices used to preface otherwise outstanding Austin performing arts events, all of which should be carefully reexamined.
Next up was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, originally a showcase for Mozart as virtuoso pianist. Acclaimed American pianist Jon Nakamatsu wasted no time demonstrating his interpretive agility, while the orchestra provided the solid, rational base for his fluid musical speculations. Ensemble and soloist acted more like equal partners during the protracted and poignant Andante, which listeners my age will never be able to disassociate from the 1967 Swedish film “Elvira Madigan,” or at least the ubiquitous circulation of its soundtrack.
That left the remainder of the evening at the Long Center, which Sibley helped build, to the “Requiem” by French composer Maurice Duruflé. Primarily an organist, Duruflé knew how to blend an array of airy sounds — vocal and instrumental — into a drifting cloud of transcendence, which makes one wish that he had followed Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Lalo and Fauré into the operatic world.
As with the previous season’s Brahms’ “Requiem,” performed with Conspirare, Duruflé’s downplays the sins, suffering and hellfire of the traditional Catholic funeral mass. We are grateful that Austin Symphony’s music director, Peter Bay, along with choral directors such as Ryan Heller (Chorus Austin) and Craig Hella Johnson (Conspirare), continue to broaden our musical experiences with superb selections such as these. And what a luxury to be able to choose from more than one first-class Austin choir!
For me, this “Requiem” elicited gentle meditations on Sibley, but also on other Austin creative leaders — Bill Wittliff, Don Graham, Stephen Moser, Rodolfo Mendez, Billy Harden and Daniel Johnston among them — that we as a city have lost in the past year or so.