Brahms draws a howl at symphony opener

Art Snob Blog

The liveliest part of the performance of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto at the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra concert on Saturday came when a service dog let out a bark from the balcony. I have heard the ASO present this work three times now and this seemed to me to be the sloppiest of the three in terms of both accuracy and energy. Admittedly, there was a standing ovation from many patrons at the end, but the clapping was cool and not prolonged and led to no encores. 

Dog people tell me its extremely rare for a service dog to bark in any safe situation. A long repeated yap indicates anxiety or fear, they say. A single woof is more of an alert or monition: “Stop it!” I don’t know whether that’s always the case but if so, as a critic, I’d say the standing ovators got it wrong and the dog got it right.

The best parts came when soloist Ilya Yakushev had open solos where he could apply rubato, romancing the keys, inflecting the notes. A notable example came just before the recapitulation in the slow movement. Otherwise it often felt as if everyone was just trying to get to the last bars of the hour-long piece. The horns, often exposed in this piece, went awry more than once. Players lost track of the slippery rhythms. At one point in the finale Yakushev appeared to be lost for a moment.

For some reason the audience got it in its mind to applaud after every movement of everything all night long. That may have been a form of polite encouragement. 

The symphony earned its encouragement and redeemed itself brilliantly in the second half of the program as conductor Randall Craig Fleischer led one of the best performances of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” — in fact one of the best performances of anything by the ASO — that I have ever heard, including performances on records. Even the slow movement, which can be dull, brimmed with tension and drama. Special commendation goes to English horn player Emily Weaver and principal oboist Sharman Piper for their exquisite duet.

The precision of the entire ensemble, in fact, impressed me. Fleischer shaped the piece in a series of arcs that were individually compelling and cumulatively stunning, particularly in the fiery final two movements. The special effects repeatedly demanded of the instruments went well. 

This time the audience in Atwood Concert Hall for opening concert in the ASO season gave a loud and long standing ovation, lingering to show their approval even though it was well after 10 p.m. 

After the performance I stopped by Sullivan’s where Rick Zelinsky and crew were knocking out some excellent jazz sets for a fairly attentive (for a bar) crowd. Zelinsky has three more performances at different locations next week, staring with Tap Root at 7 p.m. Thursday. Additional programs will take place at 7 p.m. Oct. 4 at Trinity Presbyterian Church on Huffman Road and 4 p.m. Oct. 6 in the UAA Arts Building recital hall. His band will be doing a tribute to Dave Brubeck, whose son Chris will have a piece premiered at the next regular ASO concert on Nov. 16.


Mike Dunham