BSO’s vivid “Symphonie Fantastique” a triumph

ORONO — It seemed few could resist the promise of pre-Halloween “macabre masterpieces” and the Bangor Symphony Orchestra’s 122nd season’s opening concert was packed Sunday at the Collins Center for the Arts.

The Symphony delivered a concert of program music —music that evokes images or events through an extra-musical narrative — fit for the season. The concert began with the Rimsky-Korsakov version of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” Inspired by the legend of St. John’s Eve, when witches and demons frolic on a mountain, the piece became hugely popular as part of the soundtrack for the 1940 Disney movie, “Fantasia.”

Conductor Lucas Richman’s rendition captured its diabolical energy, although the orchestra’s sections didn’t always agree on tempo and intonation was a bit iffy here and there.

Nobody other than Franz Liszt could have written “Totentanz” (Dance of the Dead), a set of variations for piano and orchestra. Based on the Latin plainsong “Dies Irae” (Day of wrath), which describes the squalor and violence of the Last Judgment, the piece is a labyrinth of technical challenges.

Sunday’s guest artist, pianist William Wolfram, demonstrated the technical skill, power, and bravura required by Liszt’s percussive chords, trills, and keyboard-ranging leaps and arpeggios. Wolfram’s cantabile playing of the work’s quieter passages was compelling. His complete mastery of the score gave a sense of spontaneity — it seemed almost as if he was improvising the variations. The orchestra went beyond mere accompaniment to be a colorful collaborator.

Maestro Richman introduced the second half of the program with the admission that “some would prefer the conductor not speak.” But speak he did, providing a description of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” which set the stage for what is generally considered to be the first great romantic symphony.

In five movements, Berlioz depicts episodes in the life of an artist consumed by passion for a woman who is represented by an “idée fixe,” a recurring theme that unifies the composition. The BSO led us through the narrative plot, from the dreamy first movement, “Rêveries, Passions”; through a lilting waltz in the second movement; the third movement’s evocative pastoral duet between English horn and off-stage oboe that ends with the foreboding sound of thunder from no fewer than four timpanists, Then comes the artist’s nightmare of murder and his own execution by guillotine — vividly portrayed at the end of the fourth movement; and the final “Dream of the Night of the Sabbath” that ends with another quote of the “Dies Irae.”

It was a fantastic showpiece for the entire orchestra, with the winds, brass, and especially percussion bringing the audience to its feet. It was a rousing beginning to what promises to be a good season for the Bangor Symphony.

Marcia Gronewold Sly

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