Benjamin Beilman

Benjamin Beilman

The Eugene Symphony kicked off its 50th anniversary season last night with a high-energy trip to France.

The anniversary marks a huge milestone for the orchestra, which in its early years played at high school gyms and churches until the Hult opened in 1982, with the symphony as one of the first resident companies.

This season will include appearances by star cellist Yo-Yo Ma as well as return engagements by the orchestra’s three most recent music directors: Giancarlo Guerrero, Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Marin Alsop, all three of whom have gone on to great accomplishment. (Get your tickets now to those concerts if you can – they’ll sell fast.)

Thursday’s concert opened with a new work commissioned by the symphony, in honor of the anniversary season, from a California composer, Mason Bates. I wasn’t familiar with him or his work; he described the piece – “Gramophone Depot” – as “a jolting train ride with a blues band chasing behind it.”

On a single listening last night it sounded more like a spinoff of Bernstein and Stravinsky to me, without a lot of ooomph and missing the jazz influences I expected from Bates’ description. But I’m glad to hear new music of just about any kind being played by the orchestra and especially glad to see the symphony commission new work.

That was immediately followed by violinist Benjamin Beilman performing Camille Saint-Saens’ Violin Concerto No. 3. Beilman was both technically amazing and musically deft, and, at age 25, still has lots of time to grow even further into the music. He’ll certainly be one to watch in the future. The audience loved his performance – I did, too – and he returned to the stage, twice, for a couple virtuosic encores.

After intermission the orchestra did a dazzling rendition of Maurice Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole, and wrapped up the evening with a full-bodied version of George Gershwin’s American in Paris, the star piece of the concert.

Conductor Danail Rachev and the orchestra were absolutely on for every note of the evening, and the concert made the perfect opener for what looks to be a wild ride of a season.