Miguel Harth-Bedoya

Miguel Harth-Bedoya

When an orchestra plays for a much-loved but now-former conductor who’s back in town, do they step up their game? Is it like running into a former lover on the street and wanting to look sharp?

That’s how it felt tonight when Miguel Harth-Bedoya returned to the Hult Center to conduct the Eugene Symphony in a program that featured two works by Alberto Ginastera.

Harth-Bedoya, who was music director here from 1996 to 2002 and who now conducts the Fort Worth Symphony in Texas, was back as part of Eugene Symphony’s 50th anniversary celebration. Also returning to the podium this season will be Marin Alsop, who held the job before Harth-Bedoya, and Giancarlo Guerrero, who had it after him and just before Danail Rachev.

In any case the orchestra absolutely stepped up to the occasion tonight, playing tight and lyrically and with passion. The evening opened with a couple small pieces, Alfonso Leng’s Preludio No. 1 and Enrique Soro’s Danza Fantastica, but the main course of the evening was two longer works by Ginastera.

The first of these was his Piano Concerto No. 1, played by Vadym Kholodenko, winner of the Van Cliburn piano competition in 2013. The concerto is weird and beautiful and challenging – imagine rustic themes of Ginastera’s Argentina woven into the complexities of Shoenbergian 12-tone music.

Kholodenko’s nuanced performance at the keyboard gave the difficult concerto a perfectly coherent voice, charming the crowd in the Silva. (Besides which, he played from a score on an iPad, which glowed blue on the music rack of the piano while a page turner periodically leaned forward and swiped the screen. I’ve never seen this in a concert before, and kept wondering whether there isn’t a Bluetooth device that would let the page turner sit back, out of the line of fire….)

After intermission, the orchestra returned to a dramatically darkened stage to perform Ginastera’s Estancia, a set of twelve dances, which were performed by the Zaraspe Dance Troupe in traditional costumes on the lighted stage apron, while baritone Jorell Williams sang.

This was fun – the dancing was romantic and energetic, a great expression of the music – and made for one of the better symphony concerts I’ve attended.