The Eugene Symphony concert tonight at the Hult Center was perfectly lovely, a semi-pops evening that mixed Broadway show tunes – more about classical musicians trying to do jazz in a moment – with a wonderfully tight, no-nonsense performance of Leonard Bernstein’s overture to Candide.
This season is the symphony’s 50th anniversary, and I’ve got to say, as an anniversary-averse former newspaperman, they’re doing the celebrating right. It’s low-key and non-intrusive, but still reminds you on a regular basis that, hey, this little hick lumber town named for the first name of some guy named Skinner has actually had its own symphony orchestra for 50 years.
Tonight’s version of classical heaven was all-Americana, from Bernstein to Aaron Copland with a fair amount of George Gershwin and even Stephen Sondheim thrown in for good measure. The opening, as I said before, was a fairly passionate rendition of Candide. The music was so good that I quickly forgot myself, which is hard for me to do with an opening piece, and I pretty much wallowed in its brisk rhythms and understated harmonies.
Next up was a new 50th anniversary commission by the symphony from an actual living composer, Roberto Sierra. Born in Puerto Rico, Sierra – who was on hand for his world premiere – explained to the audience that his piece – Loiza – was based on Puerto Rican street dance called bomba, an energetic music form that hasn’t yet been tamed by ballroom dancers.
The music was fine, but it didn’t offer the promised energy. I wanted to see the orchestra musicians playing wild, throwing sweat, making mistakes. Instead, they were playing notes on the page, which is not, I hope, what Sierra had in mind.
I’ve had this discomfort before with the frontier between jazz and classical music. Classical musicians play the score; jazz players deliver the music. For Loiza, I’m afraid, we got notes on the page.
The second half of the program was given over to Broadway tunes, sung here by soprano Elizabeth Racheva, wife of conductor Danail Rachev, and young bass-baritone Joseph Barron. They knocked out standards like “Old Man River,” from Showboat, and “I Got Rhythm,” from Girl Crazy.
Doing “Old Man River” takes a fair amount of nerve, as no one is going to top Paul Robeson’s version in the 1936 film. But Barron did a great job of trying.
Barron had more presence on the stage – Racheva’s lovely voice tended to get lost in the orchestra – but they were at their charming best together in “Anything You Can Do,” from Annie Get Your Gun.
A nice straightforward night.