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Symphony review: Musical questions and answers in season opener

By Timothy Tuller, The Florida Times-Union
September 30, 2017
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The Jacksonville Masterworks Series has returned to Jacoby Symphony Hall with an opening performance of impressive range and heartfelt introspection.

The hefty program was anchored by contemporary American composer Timo Andres’s “The Blind Banister,” a piece whose quixotic title does little to let the listener know what is coming. The “Banister” is a study of Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, also featured on the program, but is better described as a deconstruction of this early and earnest Beethoven work.

“Banister” featured guest pianist Jonathan Biss, Curtis Institute faculty member and noted Beethoven authority, for whom the piece was written. Biss’s rounded, lush expressions did much to further the accessibility of this challenging work. For fans of the more avant-grade, “Banister” has much to offer by way of exploring themes hidden in Beethoven, expounding on the fundamental tensions between order and chaos implied by rising and falling arpeggios traded between piano and orchestra. Biss’ tender rendering, in a clever bit of programming, was immediately followed by the inspiring work, leaving the listener questioning the heretofore straightforward language of early Beethoven in fresh ways.

While in the past the Symphony has shown a predilection for opening Masterworks performances with the contemporary or lesser known works, almost as a nod to the seating of latecomers, the “Banister” was instead nestled in a narrative arc that elevates each piece and shows a new level of achievement in the Symphony’s programming efforts under Courtney Lewis’s baton. The evening opened instead with the beloved Shubert’s Fifth Symphony, a delicate spun confection of crystalline contentment that showcased the orchestra’s precise yet warm string section. Preceded by this confident and untroubled work, the “Banister” becomes a critique of the implied order of Shubert’s perfect world, posing the question of whether life is order or chaos.

Closing the program in a seeming answer to this question, Sibelius’ Fifth’s Symphony rang with a sense tension and a quest for order, ultimately resolving in a musical consummation that perfectly demonstrates why Sibelius is widely regarded as a modern inheritor of Beethoven’s mantle. Selecting Sibelius as the answer to the question implied by “Banister” leaves the listener with a sense of hope but a wary respect for the chaos.

Throughout this beefy program, offering not one but two piano concertos, the orchestra displayed the characteristic level of focus and precision that has marked it as a cultural gem of our city. Lewis’ emotive but confidently traditional conducting led a seemingly indefatigable ensemble through an impressive, expressive range of music. They plumbed extremes that we have not seen them explore before in one program, from the tender and lyrical Shubert to the roaring brass of Sibelius. Despite the fact that this season sees a lot of fresh faces among the musicians, they have maintained the cohesion of old friends; and locked together through the famously difficult final six chords of Sibelius, they appeared to know it. Particularly during the Beethoven, they evidenced a delight in each other rarely to see in a modern symphony orchestra.

If this opening program is an indication of the season before us, there is much to celebrate. The evening challenged listeners, told a compelling story, and offered something for everyone.

Timothy Tuller is canon for music at Saint John’sCathedral in Jacksonville.

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