Syracuse Symphony Orchestra sweeps through Setnor Auditorium

An SSO concert with guest artist Tanya Bannister was a tumultuous evening of passion and triumph.

An evening with Beethoven and Shostakovich provides for a great deal of continuity. Tormented passages give way to moments of reconciliation. Nostalgia is mixed with violent outbursts of proto-modern material, indelibly writing both composers into the hearts of progressive Classical music lovers today.

Syracuse Symphony Orchestra treated an auditorium of mostly college freshmen last night to an experience that also managed to please the more seasoned concert-goers. Although it was not always an even performance, it did justice to the spirit of the works on display.

Guest artist Tanya Bannister was center-stage for Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto. A student of Richard Goode, who is famous for his interpretations of Beethoven, Bannister has toured throughout Europe and Asia. After winning the New Orleans Piano Competition in 2005, she co-founded a fundraiser in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She is also an active proponent of contemporary music.

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Bannister commanded the opening passages firmly, but perhaps not as delicately as the space of the hall would require. She proved to be more convincing during lyrical passages which demand less technical precision than the faster passages in the first movement, which could give any professional pianist a workout. The second movement, Adagio, was gentle and moving. The orchestra provided an expressive background  for Bannister's pianissimo sections, which she mastered, inspiring a sigh of relief.

The concerto involves rapid dynamic changes and sudden twists from major to minor. The orchestra and Bannister handled these transitions skillfully and left the audience on the edge of its seat. The soloist was lovely to watch, performing athletically without losing grace or elegance.

Conductor Daniel Hege established the appropriate balance for the rather small space of Setnor Hall. The sound of the orchestra was warm and resonant, but sometimes lacked the pliant phrasing one hopes for in Romantic music.

Shostakovich unexpectedly stole the evening. Hege chose the 5th Symphony, a popular work because of its ability to integrate Western forms and searing motives which evoke political tensions in early 20th-century Russia.

The march-like music in the first movement was a bit too loud, but Hege compensated with clean turns in phrasing and an energy that brought the emotions of the music to life. The second movement, a scherzo with farcical elements and flighty passages that manage to outwit the menacing forces that abound, was even more convincing.

The orchestra’s propensity for intense, steady playing was more suited to Shostakovich’s interwoven patchwork of sound than the whimsical demands of Beethoven. Hege rendered the haunting third movement of the 5th Symphony with sweeping phrases of the right weight and vigor. As the movement comes to a close, ethereal melodies rise to stratospheric heights, only to be resolved by two traditional chords.

Hege took little pause before opening the last movement with a playful but sinister blow. A bombastic march recalls the Stalinist regime in no uncertain terms. Fate knocks ominously, much in the vein of Tchaikovsky symphonies, until life and order are restored with much ambivalence on the part of Shostakovich. The brass section and the double-basses were at their best last night, fleshing out the music to its fullest potential.

The orchestra brought the tension to a climax in the final moments of the piece, creating little suspension but ultimately providing the pace and mastery of form that left little to be desired.

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