The real Ann Arbor Symphony shows its strengths in Beethoven, with soloist Garrick Ohlsson

By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT

(Ann Arbor, Sept. 20, 2015)

It’s an interesting concert, indeed, where Beethoven’s great Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) seems like the warm up act.

With the third of Beethoven’s five piano concertos still to come post-intermission — the case Saturday evening when the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra began its season with a “Beethoven Festival” at Hill Auditorium – perhaps that’s understandable. Especially when the featured concerto soloist is the inimitable Garrick Ohlsson. And especially when we get to double-dip by hearing him twice – once in the concerto and then in the rarely offered Beethoven “Choral Fantasy,” with the magnificent singers of the UMS Choral Union

Ohlsson soloed in both the third piano concerto and the "Choral Fantasy"

Ohlsson soloed in both the third piano concerto and the “Choral Fantasy”

Ohlsson got top billing in this A2SO concert, conducted by Music Director Arie Lipsky — the concert’s full title was “Beethoven Festival with Garrick Ohlsson.” Providing us with thrilling accounts of both the concerto and the fantasy, the 6-foot-4 Ohlsson lived up to every inch of the all-caps letters we might have seen on the marquee if Hill had one.

What Hill does have, despite its deserved reputation for fabulous acoustics, is some dead seats. Perhaps not every orchestra seat under the balcony overhang is bad, but I’ve sat in some dogs there. Once, a number of years back, I decided I was suddenly going deaf – until I realized where my seat was located. Last night, for the first half of the concert — the “Eroica” — I kept wondering, after the wonderful, cushioned “pow” of the “Eroica’s “ first chord, when the orchestra would wake up. The playing seemed so flat after that, so muted, mild and lacking in energy. But post-intermission, when my husband and I spotted a pair of vacant aisle seats in Row S – just beyond the sound-killing shadow of the overhang – we relocated for the concerto and “Choral Fantasy.” Guess what? The orchestra was playing in living color.

So maybe they were all along, and I just couldn’t hear it. I’m willing to buy that (though not to re-imagine that all entrances were spot-on unanimous or that balances were perfect), given the fabulous playing in the second half. Occasionally I wanted a little more prominence from the winds when they had their solo moments – a complaint I had in the first half, too – but wow, how they delivered as soloists and choirs in moments of dialog with Ohlsson in the fantasy, for example. Mesmerizingly gorgeous!

In the third concerto, the orchestra was very much on its game. Lipsky drew nuanced dynamic and tonal shadings from the players; the players delivered articulations that were near bookend-matched to Ohlsson’s; and their entrance at the recapitulation of the first movement was sharp in spot-on drama. My favorite moment of all: the end of the last movement, where Ohlsson several times finishes the orchestra’s thoughts, and then they finish his. They get the last word, more or less. It was just deliciously done.

Ohlsson, meanwhile, was an orchestra unto himself, making the piano ring with sweeps of sound that made you think he was hiding strings, winds and brass somewhere out of sight but near at hand. At the same time, moments of heavenly light and overall clarity – even in the most dizzying and dazzling passage work – gave his playing an irresistible allure and elan. I couldn’t keep a smile off my face. His calm and collection only added to the exhilaration.

There was more joy ahead in the “Choral Fantasy.” A) There was Ohlsson’s return, to noodle – a mild word for what he did – in the virtuoso improvisatory writing Beethoven gives the pianist (who was originally Beethoven!) to open the work. B) There was the orchestra, once again in top form. C) There was the Choral Union – soloists and choir, now directed by Scott Hanoian – to make a thrilling entrance with that proto-“Ode-to-Joy” melody Ohlsson and the orchestra intone before turning it over to the singers. Beethoven was onto a good thing here. He knew it, and we knew it, for sure, in this terrific performance Saturday night. It was a good time, on both sides of the footlights.

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Bravura Beethoven When the Ann Arbor Symphony Opens Its 2015-16 Season with Pianist Garrick Ohlsson

By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT
(Ann Arbor, Sept. 9, 2015)

Expect excitement—plus many happy returns and some exciting departures—when the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra opens its 2015-16 season with a Beethoven Festival at Hill Auditorium September 19 at 8pm.

“The whole concert is a departure into the Romantic era,” says A2SO Music Director Arie Lipsky. “It’s Beethoven diving in.”

Beethoven plunges deep and daring in the A2SO program: the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, “Eroica;” the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37; and the Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 80, “Choral Fantasy.” It’s a blockbuster lineup.

And if this concert spotlights a titan among composers, it also brings back to Ann Arbor a giant among pianists—Garrick Ohlsson.

Garrick Ohlsson Returns to Ann Arbor

This is the photo credit in the story

Garrick Ohlsson: international star, local favorite.

Ohlsson, 67, is an international star who garnered a big local fan base with his two-year, six-concert traversal of Chopin’s complete solo piano works, played in Ann Arbor under University Musical Society auspices in 1995-96. He has also been a frequent visitor to Detroit-area music venues.

“I’m excited to be back,” Ohlsson said in a late-August phone call from Melbourne, Australia, where he was on tour; he was eager to hear how Ann Arbor had changed since he was last in town in 2002.

Last season, to headline its first Beethoven Festival, the A2SO snared superstar pianist Andre Watts (for a thrilling “Emperor Concerto”). It was a declaration, really, of the stature of this top-notch regional orchestra.

“Arie had this dream to start each season at Hill [Auditorium] with a major artist, and this is now part of our long-term programming plan,” said A2SO Executive Director Mary Steffek Blaske. (The orchestra’s usual home is the Michigan Theater.)

The 2 Rs—repertoire and reputation—figured into Ohlsson’s decision to accept the orchestra’s invitation.

“I did my research before I accepted,” Ohlsson said. “And you don’t get to play the ‘Choral Fantasy’ too often. It’s impractical, because of the chorus. That was another reason to think about coming.”

With the Grammy-winning UMS Choral Union on hand, the impractical is practical. The group’s participation is another happy return, and a departure, too. The chorus teams up regularly with the A2SO, notably for annual “Messiah” performances. Their new conductor, Scott Hanoian, has prepared the group for Beethoven.

Innovative Beethoven

All three works on the program are landmarks.

In the “Eroica” symphony—premiered in 1805—Beethoven leaves behind the strictures of earlier models, and even of his own first two essays in this genre. He sets course for unexplored lands, his vessel larger and grander than before. The proportions are new; the elements surprising; the vistas heroic and unexpected.

“The Eroica,” Maestro Lipsky said, paraphrasing a famous French critic, is “a miracle even among Beethoven’s work. Nowhere does he make so big a single stride.”

Innovation is equal in the third piano concerto, which premiered in 1805. If it is an intimate work among the five Beethoven piano concertos, it’s also “a prototype of one of Beethoven’s favorite devices of form: the journey from darkness to light,” Ohlsson said.

Meanwhile, the concerto’s orchestral opening “is symphonic as none before,” he added, its argument laid out “complexly and completely.” And then there’s the matter of the soloist’s entrance.

“Here, the piano is rushing furiously up three octaves of scales,” said Ohlsson. “It’s such a challenge from the opening instrument, and it’s a first time for scales like this. The soloist is a challenging fellow, and loud, and he comes out and puts his lion paw down.”

Yet, though we may think of Beethoven perennially shaking his fist at the heavens, he also wrote an awful lot of gentle music, Ohlsson pointed out—the “sublime” slow movement of this concerto included.

The ultimate Beethoven journey from darkness to light may be the Symphony No. 9, with its concluding “Ode to Joy.” The “Choral Fantasy,” which premiered in 1808, is his sketchbook for that piece, a little brother to it in which he tries out the “Ode to Joy” material. Its opening falls to the pianist, though, who must follow a tough act—Beethoven himself. The composer was at the keyboard for the first performance, improvising the part. (He also soloed in the third concerto at its premiere.)

“It’s Beethoven not in a hurry and not structural,” Ohlsson said, and it keeps the audience on tenterhooks by sheer rhetoric, sheer noise and arresting modulations.

Dare we add virtuosity?

“Well,” says Ohlsson, modestly, “it might give you an idea of the striking quality of Beethoven’s improvisation.”

This article was written for IXITI.com: Your source to find arts and cultural events and things to do in Detroit, Ann Arbor and beyond.

Purchase tickets from $17-$73 for the Beethoven Festival with Garrick Ohlsson at a2so.com or by phone, (734) 994-4801. There is a free pre-concert lecture at 7pm for ticket holders, featuring Music Director Arie Lipsky and soloist Garrick Ohlsson.

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Mountain Heart shows love for The Ark with first of club’s 50th anniversary shows

By ROGER LeLIEVRE

Clearly The Ark is getting a great start on its 50th anniversary season. Both nights of the Ann Arbor Folk Festival / Ark fundraiser sold out the last weekend of January, and now iconic bluegrass ensemble Mountain Heart brings its high-octane live performance to the acoustic music club Friday, Feb. 6.

It’s the first of several signature 50th season performances. The year-long anniversary season has been dubbed “50 Folkin’ Years” by the Arkies.

Fans of the group probably already know, but it should be mentioned there’s been a bit of a lineup change for Mountain Heart.

After announcing the departure of co-founding member, Barry Abernathy (banjo), who stepped down to spend more time with family in 2014, Mountain Heart has regrouped. Other original members remain on board, including Josh Shilling and co-founding member Jim VanCleve. Guitar phenom Seth Taylor, multi-instrumentalist Aaron Ramsey and bassist/dobro player Jeff Partin are also on board.

They’ve appeared more than 125 times at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, but MH also has a strong connection with southeastern Michigan audiences, and at The Ark they always deliver top-notch shows. They’re coming to Michigan with a new album almost in the can, something the band – and its fans – should find thrilling.

“We are on fire about the new music we’re creating and the new show we’ve put together,” wrote VanCleve in a publicity statement.

“Having what I consider a dream team of musicians who have partnered and are motivated to grow together is overwhelmingly exciting for us. Get ready, because we are all going to have a blast,” he added.

Since the early days when Mountain Heart launched in 1999, the band has grown steadily from a traditional bluegrass group to one of the most daring and experimental acoustic bands in the world, incorporating bluegrass, country, and rock elements into their basic bluegrass format.

Other Ark anniversary shows include Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn March 1, Mark Cohn on May 3, a 50-Year Fling July 22-26 and a fall fundraiser Sept. 27 with The Steel Wheels and The RFD Boys.

Hootenanny jam sessions, workshops, a film series and other events remain to be announced.

Mountain Heart plays at The Ark on Friday, Feb. 6.  Doors open at 7:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased online at TheArk.org or by calling the box office at 734-761-1800.

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The List: 2014 in the Arts!

CLEFSUSAN ISAACS NISBETT
(Ann Arbor, Dec. 31, 2014)

It’s time to say good-bye to 2014 and welcome in the New Year. It’s a time to settle accounts and make plans, but I’ll wait till tomorrow to do the latter. Today, time to make the list that I should have made a few weeks back – the music and dance events that stuck with me from a year’s watching and listening in Ann Arbor and elsewhere.  It’s an eclectic list of favorites, not at all comprehensive, I warn you, and brief – still have to go buy the champagne to ring in 2015 – but here goes:

shutterstock_1759560Imported musical highlight of the year: Teatro Regio Torino’s “William Tell” in concert in December. I traveled to Chicago for this one – just couldn’t wait to hear it in Ann Arbor at Hill Auditorium, where UMS presented it a week later. Four hours magnificently spent with musicians and singers who were beyond extraordinary, in an opera that was, I have to say, unexpectedly compelling and quite different from Rossini’s light, bubbly, more popular operas.

16143715-mmmainDomestic musical highlight of the year: The San Francisco Symphony Mahler 7 in November was a revelation, a cohesive account of this disjunct Mahler symphony from arguably the best Mahler band on the planet, led by the SFS’s Mahler man and music director, Michael Tilson Thomas.

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Home-grown (mostly) musical highlight of the year: The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra’s “Beethoven Festival” in September, with Andre Watts as soloist in the “Emperor Concerto.” Electric playing from all concerned as the A2SO, under Music Director Arie Lipsky, went really big time with a big-name soloist in the city’s biggest hall, Hill Auditorium.

Grijalva poses with the unrestored Gershwin piano shortly after its arrival. Courtesy photo

Grijalva poses with the unrestored Gershwin piano shortly after its arrival. Courtesy photo

Favorite story I reported: George Gershwin’s last piano restored for use at the University of Michigan. I’m a piano nerd, so spending time chatting with the guys who did the job – U-M head piano technician Robert Grijalva and Pianocrafter’s Patrick DeBeliso – was a blast. I know a lot more about the insides of the instrument now.  Unfortunately, I have also developed a deep need for a Steinway Long A grand piano as a result of writing this story.

Photo by Marteen Vanden Abeele

Photo by Marteen Vanden Abeele

Most captivating dance event: Charleroi Danses’ “Kiss & Cry,” presented by UMS at Power Center in October. Poignant storytelling from Jaco Van Dormael and Michele Anne de Mey in a “nano-dance” that exploited film and dance and all the possibilities of live performance.
Favorite folks to talk to: One of the privileges of my job is interviewing the folks who dance, conduct, compose, sing, play and choreograph. They’re incredibly generous with their time and fascinating to speak with.  And the winners in my fave folks categories are, in alpha order: violinist Joshua Bell, mezzo Tara Erraught, pianist Anton Nel, A2SO music director Arie Lipsky, Turin conductor Gianandrea Noseda, violinist Itzhak Perlman, Emerson String Quartet cellist Paul Watkins, pianist Andre Watts. Thanks to all for providing insights and great conversation!

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Nostalgia trip: George Balanchine’s iconic “Nutcracker” turned 60! This was the ballet –and the production — that turned me into a passionate, lifelong dance fan when I saw it in 1956, just 2 years after Balanchine made it. Was Maria Tallchief dancing Sugar Plum that year and that day when my parents took me and my sister to New York’s City Center to see it? I don’t know, but I do remember that I refused to leave the theater after – I just didn’t want the experience to end.

What were your arts highlights in 2014? Hope you had a great year in theaters near and far!

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Turin’s “William Tell” hits the mark in Chicago

shutterstock_1759560SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT
(Ann Arbor, Dec. 9, 2014)

It’s possible that I’d fall in love with any opera performance that included complimentary tiramisu, cannoli and coffee at the first intermission; crisp apples and more coffee at the second.

But Rossini’s “William Tell,” presented in concert form in Italian (with English supertitles) and at almost four-hour length at Chicago’s Harris Theater last Wednesday, Dec. 3, needed no such lures to make it palatable.

Yes, I loved the sweets, the caffeine and the allusive apples (some cleverly pierced with little fake arrows) – all provided by local restaurants and businesses – but what sticks with me a week after the opera (besides the calories), is the sublime music and the equally sublime and exhilarating musicianship of the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Regio Torino and the incredible cast of guest soloists.Angela Meade 3 by Metropolitan Opera

That’s what will probably resonate with the Ann Arbor audience after Tuesday’s Hill Auditorium performance (Dec. 9) – one of just four (including New York and Toronto) the Turin singers and players are offering on their North American tour under conductor Gianandrea Noseda.

It’s hard not to be familiar with the “William Tell Overture” if you have a heartbeat and have been on the planet for more than few minutes. That’s truer of the overture’s rousing ending (think “Lone Ranger”) than its soulful cello opening, depicting the dawn, or its lyrical Alpine central section. But it was all thrilling – and painterly – as played by the Turin orchestra under Noseda: After the rumble of the incoming storm in the timpani, you could hear the serenity of the Alpine landscape; and if there was an appropriately-Swiss clockwork-precision to the March of the Swiss Soldiers that ends the overture, there was also Italian passion and speed and dynamic shifts worthy of Maserati (a sponsor of the tour) in this grand cavalry charge. We were primed – and stoked — for what would follow. And we were not disappointed.

What follows is the story of a people – the Swiss – intent on freeing themselves from Austrian oppressors, led by the great folk hero and uber-archer William Tell. He’s the title character and a baritone (Luca Salsi), but he’s not the love interest. That falls to the tenor (naturally), one Arnold Melcthal (John Osborn), a Swiss who has worked under the Austrians (but becomes a patriot when he learns they’ve executed his father) and who’s had the misfortune of falling for one of the enemy, the Hapsburg Princess Mathilde (soprano Angela Meade).

Teatro Reggio TurinIf you think bubbles and comedy when you think Rossini – “Barber of Seville,” say, or “Cenerentola,” this is something altogether different. This final opera of Rossini’s career, premiered in 1829 in Paris and put into Italian a few years later, is grand and intense. If it is filled with Rossinian melodic loveliness and beautiful interludes for the chorus, representing the people at play as well as at war, it is also fleshed out with Verdian heft. The drama is gripping, the tale and the music heroic. Occasionally, it’s the writing is heartbreaking, as when Salsi, a remarkable Tell, sings his one big, gut-wrenching aria before he must shoot that famous apple from his son’s head. The music is also virtuosic, requiring great stamina from its performers over the opera’s nearly four-hour course.

So I was riveted – despite a Manhattan with dinner that could have spelled s-n-o-o-z-e – from overture to grand finale, when liberty triumphs and heroes and lovers and the Swiss people rejoice. (It’s a moving scene, and it’s one in which the libretto reminds me of the finale of “Cenerentola.” In that opera, Cinderella recounts in her big aria how suddenly everything changed for her (“Come un baleno rapido, La sorte mia cangio”); here there is similar miraculous transformation, magically orchestrated and announced with a “Tutto, tutto cambia,” as nature and liberty flourish in a sort of apotheosis.)

I can’t recall hearing better, more vivid choral singing – ever. The Turin singers, under Chorus Master Claudio Fenoglio, seem one voice, and the singing was gloriously 3-D, astonishing in its projection and character. The men were outstanding in Act II as the approaching forces from the Swiss cantons; the women seriously wonderful in Act III as mountain girls singing a cappella between orchestral dance interludes.

You didn’t need staging to hear the dance in that music. Noseda, a graceful and vigorous presence on the podium, was an embodiment of the dance, curtsies and bows included; his choreography was designed not so much to show the music but to show the musicians, who responded like dancers themselves. It was hard not to smile at the grace of it all.

You sometimes did wish for a little staging – or a bit more acting – from the soloists, arrayed to either side of Noseda and exiting and entering as called for. But mostly they let us keep our ear on the music, and that was more than fine.

I know Meade has sung Matilde staged, but her acting here was a little unfocused. Not so her singing; hers is a huge voice, but she can sure float a pure high note and run a roulade with the best of them. In Chicago, some of her coluratura in more rapid spots was a little pressed; it seemed like hard work, but that may have been an anomaly. Osborn was heroic and ringing in the taxing role of Arnoldo; and Salsi, as Tell, had the stature and command, vocally and dramatically, to fill the big shoes the role demands. His was a memorable performance. Among the other soloists, all excellent, Marco Spotti stood out for the sturdy bass he brought to the role of the Swiss freedom fighter Gualtiero Farst.

Altogether, this “William Tell” was a win not just for the Swiss, but for the soloists, this Italian company led by Noseda and not least of all, for the audience. I’ll be thinking about it – and maybe the tiramisu? – for a while to come.

 

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Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang: Hearing with your eyes

Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang

SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT
(Ann Arbor, Nov. 29, 2014)

Hearing with your eyes was not the main thing on my mind during Yuja Wang and Leonidas Kavakos’ recital at Hill Auditorium Sunday Nov. 23, presented by the University Musical Society.

No, I was thinking, first of all, what a miracle Wang’s pianism is, the nuance of the detail she creates, the spectrum of colors she conjures, the grand sound as round it as is enormous when she wants it. I was thinking about whether violinist Kavakos, whom I was hearing for the first time live, was a little thin in the opening Brahms sonata (the second of the Brahms threesome he released this year with Wang on Decca), and then thinking I liked the simplicity and straightforwardness of his interpretation – not just in the Brahms, but in the Schumann 2nd sonata that followed in the concert’s first half.

I was thinking about how Wang, whose fame eclipses Kavakos’ even though he’s about 20 years her senior, got top billing: Yuja Wang, piano; Leonidas Kavakos, violin. That’s pretty unusual for a violin-piano recital, even if we can say that a lot of violin sonatas (though not the ones on this bill, which also included the first Ravel sonata and the Respighi sonata) are really piano and violin sonatas and not the other way around. It’s unusual even if the sonatas on the bill do, in fact, make enormous demands, technical and interpretive, on the pianist, as the sonata’s on Sunday’s program did. She’s a “player” just as much as he is.

But you know, you do hear with your eyes, and not just with your ears.

About a year ago, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed just how much that’s true. People who saw silent videos of piano competitions could pick the actual winners better than those who also heard the playing. And it was visible passion that seemed to count.

That’s fascinating, illuminating (to use a sight metaphor), and perhaps hardly surprising.

Did you notice Wang’s Kelly green gown, hardly daring compared to some of her other concert attire, but a bit shocking still for its below-the-waist dip in back. Hey, she’s 27, she might as well have fun with her clothes. And why shouldn’t she wear 6-inch stilettos if she can pedal in them (she can) and walk in them (not so clear, though it might have been the combo of the dress pooling on the floor and the heels that were the problem).

Did you notice Kavakos, all in casual black, seemed out of a different movie? More to the point: did it bother you, or affect your hearing, that he and Wang had no eye contact? And that he was totally impassive facially as he played, that his body did not “tell” the music – a la Gil Shaham, who played here a week earlier with the San Francisco Symphony?

I love it when musicians can be still as they play their instruments. Wang, for example, is not a big mover; her posture is upright and calm, and she’s not a hummer or a grimacer as are some others who come to mind, performers whose playing I adore but whom I prefer with my eyes closed. But her face and body are expressive; she is not impassive in the way that Kavakos was.

This is not a criticism of Kavakos, it was simply a fact of this one Sunday performance. I can’t generalize. When I did close my eyes – to test what I thought of the playing without sight getting into the picture – I really liked what I heard from him (the above-mentioned straightforwardness, for example). I also thought that the two did just fine (but maybe not fab) on questions of ensemble. If you play with someone enough, the subtlest of cues will suffice. From an audience perspective, though, I wonder if perhaps a little more interaction helps us to hear, and to hear performers as a unit.

All these musings aside, I loved the concert, the first half particularly. The Brahms second sonata, is a gorgeous, intimate thing, murmuring and autumnal, seducing emotional participation in best Brahmsian fashion. Wang and Kavakos sucked me in, too. Ditto for their performance of the Schumann, less frequently heard than the Brahms and more dramatic than the Brahms, more quicksilver, too.

The Ravel sonata, which opened the second half, was a deliberate change of pace and mood, a sort of palate cleanser. It’s not as frequently programmed as the 2nd sonata – in fact, not one UMS concert since the sonata was uncovered (in the mid-’70s, well after Ravel’s death) has featured it. It has the antique Greek perfume of “Daphnis et Chloe,” which the San Francisco Symphony offered just a week before, and it’s blissfully a lot shorter. The Respighi, another infrequent visitor on recital programs, is darker and grander in its late Romanticism than either the Brahms or Schumann. It’s also more discursive than either of these. So I forgive myself if I tuned out or closed my eyes for a few minutes here or there during the playing – the better to hear. And eyes wide shut or open, its final chords were a powerful finish for the afternoon.

To see my interview with Leonidas Kavakos, visit MLIVE.

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San Francisco Symphony, Night Two: Invitation to the Dance

16143715-mmmainSUSAN ISAACS NISBETT
(Ann Arbor, Nov. 16, 2014)

Is it all about the dancing? In a way, it was, for better and worse, at the San Francisco Symphony’s second concert of two at Hill Auditorium this week, under University Musical Society auspices.

First, you had the devil himself as the fiddler for the country fete in Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz No. 1.” Then you had violinist Gil Shaham as a perennially perambulating soloist in the second Prokofiev Violin Concerto – scooting left and right across the ample space the orchestra left him as if knowing his desire to dart this way and that to commune with conductor or concertmaster or this or that player. And after intermission, you had Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe” – complete, not one of the suites — with a huge contingent from UMS Choral Union (they might have outnumbered the huge Ravel orchestra) singing the wordless vocals.

The first half of this Friday evening concert was transfixing.

In a lithe and rhythmically vibrant performance, SFS Music Director and Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra brought out all the charm and color of Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz.” The band tuned up, the devil grabbed his fiddle (or maybe that was Alexander Barantschik, as wizardly concertmaster), and soon enough, sprites and spirits danced with flickering Mendelssohnian lightness before the scene evaporated.

The Prokofiev concerto, in Shaham’s hands, was no less magical. He seemed to be taking a sort of elfin glee and pleasure in playing, smiling to the audience and the players in anticipation of the sounds that he’d produce. And what sounds they were. Each lyrical phase in the concerto’s first movement was shaped with arresting dynamic nuance and modulation. His quiet playing drew your ear. And his fast fiddling was a scribble so precise you could have graphed it.

If the third movement Allegro was delightful with its Spanish accents (a tributesome to a Madrid premiere, some think), it was the second movement, a serenade in which the violin plays glowingly against mechanical clock triads in the orchestra – the roles are then charmingly reversed later – that was the utter charmer. It will stay in memory a long time.

I think my memories of the second half, the complete “Daphnis et Chloe,” will be less strong. I found the work – at about an hour in length – completely trance-inducing, numbingly so, I have to say. I could hardly focus my eyes, let alone my ears, by the end, and I wasn’t surprised, on the way out, to hear one musically tuned-in audience member imitating the endless windlike, moaning sighs of the choral part.

When we do hear “Daphnis et Chloe” in the concert hall, it is usually one of the suites (more commonly the second) drawn from the ballet. The full piece, like the suites, is magnificent, shimmering and luminous in its undulant evocation of antiquity and pastoral nature. And both the orchestra and chorus were superb as painters of Ravel’s Impressionist colors and as masters of the dance.

But given that the score was actually conceived as ballet music, and that the plot, as expressed in the music, at least, is not much of an anchor most of the time, I had the feeling that the visuals of dance might have focused my ears as well as my eyes. As it was, it was all too easy to feel unmoored.

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