It was gratifying to see very few empty seats at the final outing of this year's Backstage Pass series on Friday. And many of those seats were filled by younger-than-usual listeners: strong evidence that this laid-back, informal series is realizing its goal of building a new base for classical music.
Part of the appeal is that you get verbal introductions to each piece (plus key musical excerpts) that enhance listeners' appreciation of the music. It's a good way to demystify what might be seen as an arcane art-form by neophytes. Yet you never get the feeling Scott Terrell (the series' usual conductor and host) is talking down to you.
First up was Igor Stravinsky's fascinating Octet, scored for the oddball instrumental team of flute (Jessica Hull-Dambaugh) and clarinet (Charles Messersmith), plus pairs of bassoons (Christopher Sales, Katherine St. John), trombones (William Zehfuss, Thomas Joyce), and trumpets (Karin Bliznik, Michael Smith). And this doesn't work unless every player is a virtuoso.
The music unfolded with Stravinsky's hallmark neo-classical astringency and emotional coolness. Yet it engaged us with its many playful, sunny moments as well as the composer's usual rhythmic intensity. I especially enjoyed the way musicians handled the work's brain-teasing contrapuntal passages. The crowd seemed to love it.
Next we heard Pablo de Sarasate's brilliant Fantasy on Bizet's Carmen, a supreme showpiece for solo violin and orchestra. Sarasate, like other legendary violin gods of his day, tended to write pieces that demand galaxy-class chops. Fortunately, the evening's soloist — Concertmaster Yuriy Bekker — comes so equipped.
He gave us rich, rosy tone and deep sentiment in the music's languorous, gypsy-flavored interludes. But the main thrill was hanging on for dear life as Yuriy tore through the beastly difficult final dance at full tilt, teetering on the bare edge of control. Yet he pulled it off with flair and panache, with no more than a slightly smudged note or two.
The evening ended on yet another neo-classical note, Sergei Prokofiev's ever-popular (and very tricky) Classical Symphony. And our trusty band nailed it. It's mostly a cheerful musical tumble with interludes of songful beauty and delightful dance. The skittering finale recalled a happy, headlong children's game of tag. Have you heard an orchestra giggle before?