Symphony opens with a rousing musical mix

Martin Majkut promised something outside the box for the kickoff of Rogue Valley Symphony's new season, and Saturday night at the Ginger Rogers Craterian Theater, he delivered. Farthest out was Keith Emerson's Piano Concerto No. 1.

Although various symphony orchestras have performed Beatles tunes (see the London Symphony Orchestra's take on "Eleanor Rigby" on Facebook) and the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Marin Symphony, among others, have performed large chunks of the Grateful Dead songbook, Emerson, Lake and Palmer isn't what you expect along with your Haydn, Lizst and Barber.

The other novelty came at the end of Josef Haydn's Symphony No. 45, "Farewell." Haydn and a group of musicians were in service to Count Esterhazy, Haydn's patron, and they got homesick, and the count wouldn't let them go.

So the enterprising Haydn had the musicians in the last movement of his Symphony No. 45, "Farewell," stop playing one at a time and begin to leave the stage until there were only two left with the conductor. The orchestra members followed Haydn's script, which was highly entertaining and something else you can file in the something-you-don't-see-everyday category.

The evening began with an emotional performance of Samuel Barber's "First Essay for Orchestra, Op. 12." While not as widely known as the great American composer's "Adagio for Strings," the essay is a good example of one of Barber's favorite forms — concise enough to benefit from his usual attention to structure, yet capable of being opened up to the sweeping drama of his sophisticated melodies.

It's a lovely piece, and it's odd to think that at a time in which any notion of the primacy of melody had fallen from favor, Barber was once considered a bit old-fashioned. At the hands of Majkut and the orchestra, he now sounds grandly cinematic and quintessentially American.

Franz Liszt's dramatic Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major was a major showcase for pianist and guest artist Jeffrey Biegel — after all, it's Lizst — but it calls on the orchestra to take an equally prominent role.

The concerto began with that unforgettable motif that soon yielded to Biegel ripping off great mountains of those incredible octave passages on the piano.

The piano soon introduced another subject, then played a peaceful duet with the clarinet. When the main theme returned it was thunderous.

The second section (there are no pauses between sections) featured more long piano passages and liberal use of the triangle, which subjected Lizst to savage criticism in his day.

Several themes appeared and disappeared in the third section until, with some towering orchestral phrases and more pyrotechnics from Biegel, it came to a triumphant end.

Biegel, who has performed in the Valley several times over the years, is a wonderful pianist. He's technically on top of his material at all times no matter how fiery it becomes, yet his playing has an emotional transparency that's deeply satisfying.

Haydn's "Farewell" began with a lush, stormy first movement, after which it relaxed into slow passages with the violins carrying the melody. It grew somber, then dissonant. After the minuet, the final movement began as an energetic sonata and rose to what people sometimes hear as a false ending.

Only after a long, coda-like section did the musicians begin leaving the stage waving good-bye, thumbing their noses and generally signaling the thing was a fait accompli.

The sound faded and grew thinner until the final, rather comic, ending.

Keith Emerson is one of the most-respeted pianists in rock history. He was known for playing Jimi Hendrix-like jams on keyboards, sometimes upside down and backwards. He was the first keyboardist to tour with a Moog synthesizer, but he also composed serious music.

His Piano Concerto No. 1 originally was recorded by Emerson Lake and Palmer with the London Philharmonic in 1977 for the ELP album "Works." It's a rock-free zone, full of clashing moods (Emerson didn't work out smooth transitions) and huge climaxes, especially in the first and final movements.

Emerson has performed the concerto widely with symphony orchestras, and even attended performances of it by his pal Biegel (check it out on YouTube), yet more evidence that music is a universal language.

After a generous ovation, Biegel returned for a warmly satisfying performance of Chopin's "Fantasie Impromptu."

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