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Review: Austin Symphony returns in person at Riverbend Church — orchestral music regained

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Playing at Riverbend Church, the Austin Symphony, led by Peter Bay, spread the precious gift of orchestral music regained.

It didn't happen right away.

Not during the booming, brassy Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, No. 1 by Joan Tower.

Nor during the opening passages of the saucy, sassy "Huapango" by José Pablo Moncayo, as arranged by Ernesto Enriquez.

The shock of hearing an orchestra play in person for the first time in 15 months came later during "Huapango" with the unexpected rattle of maracas.  

Like a rattlesnake's warning, this tingling sound ricocheted through my nervous system, reminding me that certain responses to orchestral music cannot be duplicated by listening to recorded or streaming versions of it.

Austin Symphony returns in-person

The Austin Symphony Orchestra played its last concerts of the season — also its only concerts in person — at Riverbend Church in West Austin. The customary venue for the group's annual performances of Handel's "Messiah," the room is tall, wide and comfortable. The stage is copious — although not big enough for the entire orchestra to to sit together within the protocols of social distancing — and is framed by long, nested stone arches.

Riverbend cannot match the acoustics of the Dell Hall at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, which might as well have been designed precisely for this ensemble. Yet as the orchestra moved into the "Czech Suite" by Antonín Dvořák at Riverbend, they commanded the space.

This five-part piece feels like an enticement to a pastoral spring fling that, by the finale, has moved into the formal ballroom of a nearby palace.

Out in the chilly Hill Country night during the break, I reflected on the promise of the next season indoors. Back at the Long Center, every upcoming concert has been packed with blockbusters. The symphony's leaders understand that, after a long period of withdrawal, fans want to be wowed more than they care to be instructed or merely entertained.

Austin musicians 'can play anything'

And as David Pratt, the impressive new symphony executive director and CEO, recently said about Austin's musicians: "They can play anything." This coming from a man who has run orchestras and music festivals across America and Australia. He promises to be a well-matched collaborator for music director Peter Bay.

Back inside, Bay announced the rare news that two principal instrumentalists were stepping back from their roles. Second violinist Richard Kilmer and trumpeter Robert Cannon will still play but will not serve as section leaders. Both joined the ensemble back in the 1980s when I first became acquainted with a very different Austin Symphony, stuck in an unsuitable hall with a buttoned-up conductor.

Kilmer choked up when he talked to the audience about how far the orchestra had come, thanks to Bay's gently but firmly conveyed rigor. Here, here!

If the first half of the evening was like waking from a hazy dream, the second half reminded the audience of the abounding power of orchestral music. Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 is muscular, well-defined and extraordinarily potent. Each of the four movements is a distinct masterpiece of its own. 

My esteem for the orchestra's musicianship melted into memories of past brushes with this piece, as I am sure was the case with other audience members. Memories of life, love and loss played out to this soundtrack were impossible to set aside. 

Because music is not just about technical artistry, it is also about emotion.

Still, the orchestra did not stint this evening on technical flair. I even heard some thrilling rhythmic variations for the first time.

Orchestral music finally returns

A few hours earlier, while writing another article, I had played a CD of the Berliner Philharmoniker under Herbert von Karajan playing the Seventh in 1963. It was crisp and exacting with expertly controlled dynamics. But it might as well been sonic wallpaper compared to hearing the Austin Symphony perform the same piece in person, even in imperfect circumstances.

Thursday's audience appeared to agree, giving Bay and his orchestra one of the longest standing ovation in years.

I left the church musing: How apt — this was just the right place for a blessing so sacred as music regained.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

Next Up

Sept. 17-18: "Espíritu Latino!" Dubbed an "Anthony J. Corroa Concert" after the symphony's recently retired executive director, this show will include Édouard Lalo's "Symphonie Espagnole" and Maurice Ravel's "Boléro."

To subscribe and/or donate, contact the Austin Symphony during office hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday at 512-476-6064, ext. 3, or email at boxoffice@austinsymphony.org.