On Saturday evening, I attended the opening concert of the 2010-2011 season of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. This evening was made additionally more exciting given that it also marked the beginning of Maestro Mei-Ann Chen's tenure as music director. Given my personal feelings about the city of Memphis in general, I was pleasantly surprised to leave the concert with an optimistic view of the future of classical music in Memphis.
The program featured staples of the Russian repertoire: Shostakovich's Festive Overture, Op. 96; the well-known First Piano Concerto of Tchaikovsky; and the Scheherazade Symphonic Suite, Op. 35, by Rimsky-Korsakov. The music programmed was a fitting opening for what appears to be an exciting and well-rounded season of literature for the Symphony. Dr. Chen appears to be confident in the ability of our players, made evident by the demanding repertoire scheduled. In her introductory remarks, Chen stated that it was her goal to see MSO become the finest orchestra in the region during her tenure; based upon the musical sensitivity and excellent sounds she elicited from her players on Saturday, I believe she is just the woman for the job.
The entire program was glorious, but the Rimsky-Korsakov simply took my breath away. I especially enjoyed the exquisite solo passages played by Concertmaster Susanna Perry Gilmore as well as those from Jennifer Rhodes, principal bassoon, and Scott Moore, principal trumpet. The commitment to musical excellence demonstrated by these three players in these incredibly demanding passages renewed my hope and faith in our Memphis Symphony.
Rarely will one attend a performance where they enjoy everything. Saturday evening's concert was no exception. While I applaud MSO's commitment to developing young musicians, I hope that my ears are never again assaulted by the overpowering sounds of a high school marching band playing in the aisles of the Cannon Center. Don't misunderstand -- the sound was quite good and I would have appreciated it in a setting designed for such loud decibels. In the current setting, however, the playing was physically painful. Based upon the body language of others in the hall, I am not alone in this opinion. Many audience members -- both in the balconies and on the main floor -- and members of the orchestra could be seen with their hands covering their ears in a vain attempt to muffle the sound. There must be a compromise; as a patron, I want to be supportive of the arts in our area schools, but not at the detriment of my hearing.
As far as the Orchestra itself, my only complaint was with the woodwind section. Throughout the evening, I felt as though some members of the section were struggling to play at the new level that Ms. Chen is introducing. I realize that we all have performances when we are simply not at our best. In keeping with that maxim, I will reserve my judgment until I listen further to their performances in the future. I am certain of this one thing -- Mei-Ann Chen is a gifted woman with a clear goal in mind for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. She will bring the best out of all of her musicians, but I have a feeling she will not hesitate to make personnel changes as she deems necessary.
I am looking forward to hearing about the next concert on October 16-17, 2010. I am thrilled that my dear friend and fellow Pepperdine alumnus, Jessica Rivera, will be the featured soloist on the Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915. On the other hand, I am upset that I will miss the performance due to another engagement that weekend on the left coast.