Thursday night at the River Center Theatre for the Performing Arts, music by a pair of Russions and a Hungarian made up the Baton Rouge Symphony’s particularly satisfying first concert of 2008. Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem, “Scheherazade,” offered its colorful interpretation of “The Arabian Knights.” Dmitry Shostakovich’s brief “Festive Overture” opened the evening on a high-spirited note, and Bela Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring soloist Melissa Marse, cast a spell of its own. Guest artist Marse played the tricky Bartok concerto with commendable technique and musicality. A slight young woman Marse demonstrated a sure technique capable of exploiting the piano’s subtlety as well as its dynamic capability. The Bartok concerto begins with barely audible strings accompanying soft melody in the piano, but quickly grows active and loud. The composer’s piano score fully exercises the instrument, including playful, syncopated melodies and percussion chord passages. All the while, Marse’s keyboard touch and tone and finely executed dynamics were a pleasure. Compared to its lively opening movement, the Bartok concerto’s hymnlike middle section moved with elegant grace. Piano, strings and woodwinds shared the music’s simple, beautiful chorale style. The concerto’s final movement begins with a flourish and continues with scurrying melody in the piano. In this dramatic but undeniably joyful movement, Marse further demonstrated her strong grasp of the piece. Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” filled the concert’s second half with some of the orchestra’s richest ensemble work of the season. Throughout Thursday’s concern, musicians and conductor Timothy Muffitt were especially in sync. It was as if everyone on stage had congealed into a single instrument capable of the grandest display of power and color. Violinist and concertmaster Borislava Iltcheva literally played “Scheherazade’s” title character, the wife of Khalif, a man who habitually kills his wives. Iltcheva’s expressive playing, heard throughout the piece, made the threatened but clever Scheherazade tangibly present. Naturally, Khalif was represented by a fearsome theme of his own. Besides giving the orchestra’s first violinist a starring role, “Scheherazade’s” luxuriantly Romantic first movement, “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” lavished parts upon other instruments, including oboe, horn and flute. In another example of Rimsky-Korsakov’s colorful orchestration, celestial harp was a frequent supporting player for the first violin. Muffitt and the orchestra gave “Scheherazade’s” second movement, “The Tale of the Kalendar Prince,” all the action and urgency it needed, including a dramatic concluding crescendo. James West’s trumpet, especially sounded the car to battle. The musicians filled “Scheherazade’s” third movement, “The Young Prince and the Young Princess,” with apropos affection and Iltcheva returned another round of lovely violin playing. “Scheherazade’s” multisectioned finale moved seamlessly from the spectacular to the tender. And while the piece in its entirely can be a great and often hazardous journey, Thursday’s performance unfolded smoothly, well told from start to finish.
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