Review: Alabama Symphony, Mei-Ann Chen combine for electrifying 'Firebird'

Mei-Ann Chen

By Michael Huebner

Of the great Russian symphonic composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was probably the most influential, not only for his nationalism, but for his prowess as an orchestrator. So his "Sinfonietta on Russian Themes" was an obvious opener for the Alabama Symphony’s all-Russian program Friday night at the Alys Stephens Center.

The work’s simple melodies, cast in vivid orchestral colors, were given buoyancy and light by guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen, the Memphis Symphony music director who was making here second appearance with ASO. More telling about the concert, the work uses folk themes that would be heard in the evening’s second offering, Stravinsky’s Suite from "The Firebird." But those foreshadowing moments could not have predicted the excitement that would transpire.

Chen is an extremely demonstrative conductor with a faultless beat pattern and arms that beat like birds’ wings. To say the orchestra was tight, taut and focused in Stravinsky’s ballet suite is an understatement. The musicians picked up on Chen’s energy early on, building momentum and getting carried away with the electrifying ambiance they created.

The finale was breathtaking. During one of the longest pre-intermission ovations in memory, Chen darted to the horn section to congratulate section principal David Pandolfi, whose solos were superb all evening, and then made the rounds to several other stellar soloists. Pianist Eliran Avni had his work cut out for him after intermission in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Tackling one of the most difficult solos in the concerto literature, Avni seemed to struggle, often caught up in his own world, often sounding loud and brittle. Moments of delicacy came through in the first and second movements, but much of the ensemble was choppy.

Tempo discrepancies were frequent, largely because of Avni’s surging and subsiding. Soloists have the right of way in such matters, but Chen could have used more help. The performance didn’t come together until late in the final movement, when Avni’s thick, pounding technique settled in with the orchestra and some chemistry was established leading to a brilliant finale.