Review: Wardlaw-Bailey wows in solo debut with Civic Orchestra

Mike Dunham

Two fine performances exceeded my expectations at Saturday afternoon's concert by the Anchorage Civic Orchestra. One was the stupendous playing by soloist Freya Wardlaw-Bailey in Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2. The other was the splendid sound coming from the ACO violins.

Wardlaw-Bailey has a good reputation as an accompanist and teacher in Anchorage, but I've only heard her as a soloist once or twice and never with orchestra before now. While the Shostakovich is not the most difficult piece in the piano concerto repertoire, neither is it facile. The concerto is, after all, a showpiece intended to amaze the listener with pianistic pyrotechnics.

Wardlaw-Bailey was in full control of the percussive and lyric passages alike, extremely precise and compelling from start to finish, delving into the quicksilver music with a lively sense of exploration and plenty of energy. Several big-name pianists have visited Anchorage over the past few years and she did a better job than most of them. There wasn't a terribly large crowd at the Sydney Laurence Theatre, but it gave her a loud standing ovation.

The violin section has often been the Achilles' heel of ACO concerts, the collective intonation a matter of consensus rather than unity. We've come to expect it; after all, this is an ensemble of community volunteers. But the sound on Saturday was remarkably together and confident. Some of that is no doubt due to hard work during the past year, in which time we've noticed steady improvement. But I'm willing to credit part of the improvement to Lee Wilkins, who returned as concertmaster after being absent for much of the season following a spill on the ice that injured his wrist.

It was a big sound and it paid big dividends in the Seventh Symphony of Alexander Glazunov, apparently having its Pacific Northwest premiere. Conductor Philip Munger said he considered this Glazunov's masterpiece and, while the performance didn't completely change my perception of the composer as a sort of Russian John Williams, the symphony did have several very good moments. The first movement seemed quite well-built, the slow movement had a potentially rhapsodic surge and toward the end of the finale the orchestra delivered an exciting and impressive climax.

In these places, the violins provided the muscle, often in conjunction with the low brass. The surge in the slow movement, for example, soared powerfully, ravishingly. Elsewhere, however, in a quiet fughetta, things were scrambled; the violin section wasn't always matched by their colleagues with the lower strings.

Nonetheless, the Glazunov was a brave and rewarding number to put on the program. In the past 45 years I've attended about 200 orchestra concerts and heard maybe 50 symphonies, 90 percent by the same seven men. It was nice to hear something substantial and different. Again, the audience made some loud noise at the end.

The concert opened with Rimsky-Korsakov's "Procession of the Nobles," which suffered from weakness in the trumpets.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.