ORONO — The Bangor Symphony Orchestra opened its 123rd season Sunday afternoon with a concert of works by Bernstein, Ravel and Sibelius.
Music Director and conductor Lucas Richman remarked that this was probably the first time a BSO performance had begun with the strumming of an electric guitar — the introductory chord of “Simple Song” from Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.” Mezzo-soprano Joëlle Morris sang the very pretty invocation, “Sing God a simple song, Lauda, Laude…Sing like you like to sing…” with warmth, conviction and a bit of jazzy swagger.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, which the symphony will commemorate in performances of his music throughout the season.
A thread of jazz continued in the concert’s centerpiece, with Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. Addressing the audience before he sat down to play, soloist Alon Goldstein described influences and reference points to be found in the piece: Stravinsky, the sounds of Asia, and most of all, jazz. Goldstein was fully at ease with the demands of the piece, which employ the piano variously as a percussion instrument, as an accompanist to the orchestra, as a serenely lyrical soloist, and in flashing virtuoso passages.
Maestro Richman led the orchestra in and out of the spotlight, which shone on solo contributions from orchestra members. As an encore, Goldstein tore his way through the remarkable solo piano part from Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety.”
After intermission, Richman and the orchestra took on the Symphony No. 2 of Jean Sibelius — and triumphed. Following the popular success of “Finlandia,” the composer wrote this symphony in 1901, at a time when the symphonic form had been largely abandoned. Sibelius not only embraced the form, but put his own stamp on it, drawing numerous musical motives into a vast architectural structure.
The BSO’s exploration of the piece began with a reassuring, repeated chord progression in the string section that gave way to bold statements from the woodwinds and brass. The second movement opened with a drum roll that led to a spooky pizzicato passage from the double basses. The aura of foreboding was taken up by the two bassoons, playing in octaves. As the rest of the orchestra entered, a conversation ensued, with phrases passed seamlessly from one instrument or section to another, leading to an abrupt and inconclusive ending.
The third movement began with jittery figures in the strings, followed by a quiet passage featuring the woodwinds and brass. The nervous string motive returned, building to an uninterrupted transition to the rousing final movement. The orchestra’s playing was flat-out and glorious. Although there were far too many empty seats in the hall — possibly because of the unfortunate scheduling on a holiday weekend — the audience was loudly enthusiastic in its appreciation, a promising sign for the rest of the season.