At an orchestra concert, you suspect it's going to be a big night when you spot the gong onstage. You know it's going to be a big night when you then see not one but two harps rising majestically from a sea of strings players.
Indeed, the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra set its sights high to open its 21st season Saturday night. The Phil's musicians were joined by a big-name guest, pianist Jon Kimura Parker, who also opened the orchestra's 2004-05 season.
The Phil's selections, including Strauss' epic "Ein Heldenleben," were delivered with fiery spirit, but it was the collaboration with Parker that sent the biggest shivers of delight down my spine.
Parker was featured soloist for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20, a moody work in D minor. Throughout the three movements, the melody is handed back and forth between orchestra and pianist. This was handled effortlessly and wonderfully by the musicians, conducted by Christopher Wilkins, who's starting his last season as the Philharmonic's artistic director.
Parker is a strong technician, but showed equal devotion to the musicality found in the many runs up and down the keyboard. Although the soloist, Parker never amped up his volume as if he were showboating. Instead, he carefully matched the sound level of the orchestra musicians — not easy to do when it's one against so many. The result? An exquisitely balanced piece that burst from delicious melancholy to delightful joy.
Following the traditional "Star-Spangled Banner" season opener, the evening began with the rousing "Savannah River Holiday." Ron Nelson's often-boisterous composition was given a spirited reading, underscored by vibrant percussion — not just drums, but the glockenspiel, tambourine and triangle contributed to the vitality.
"Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life)" filled the second half of the program. The work has six movements, performed on grand scale — 98 musicians filled the Bob Carr stage.
Each orchestral section had its moment in the sun: coquettish strings, triumphant brass and chattering woodwinds — "carping," Wilkins called them — representing Strauss's critics. Wilkins masterfully held together all the moving musical lines, and the extra-large ensemble showed its dynamic power especially on the work's fourth movement, evocative of a battlefield.
That full-throttle effect was worlds away from an earlier surprise. After the Mozart concerto, Parker played Rachmaninoff's quiet, wistful Prelude in G major as an encore. A hush fell over the auditorium as Parker's fingers created a dreamscape of longing with perhaps a tinge of regret. It was three minutes of pure beauty.
Next from the Phil
• What: 'An American Salute' celebrates American music and patriotic music, from "Orange Blossom Special" to "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. The Orlando Gay Chorus guests.
• When: 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 12
• Where: Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, 401 W. Livingston St., Orlando
• Tickets: $18-$70
• Call: 407-770-0071
• Online: OrlandoPhil.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun