To borrow a quote from the inimitable Lewis Carroll, the Oklahoma City Philharmonic's recent classics concert got progressively curiouser and curiouser.
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was well ahead of his time in regards to orchestration. Nearly a century and a half later, his remarkable facility still retains a freshness that any composer would be happy to emulate.
“Harold in Italy” is clearly one of his more unusual compositions, a musical hybrid that is not a concerto for viola, although the instrument does figure prominently throughout its four movements. And, yes, its orchestrational innovations still delight the ear.
We've been programmed to assume that if a soloist stands in front of an orchestra (or is seated at the piano), we're about to hear a work that showcases his musical virtuosity. But “Harold in Italy” never makes the soloist jump through hoops.
The solo part is decorative rather than splashy, not unlike an obbligato line that hovers above an orchestral work unfolding below. Principal violist Royce McLarry proved to be an accomplished soloist, with a warm if occasionally understated sound that nicely served as guide and observer. More attractive still were the instrument's orchestral pairings — viola and harp, viola with horns — that cast it in an ever-changing light.
This all-French concert's second half was devoted to the music of Camille Saint-Saens, starting with the always-appealing “Danse Macabre.” The opening to this night of revelry starts with the harp playing a dozen repeated notes to indicate that midnight is upon us.
Then, the concertmaster's intentionally mistuned E-string creates an eerie introduction using the tritone. Indeed, Gregory Lee's frequent solo contributions were masterfully executed. When the devil's festivities really cranked up, the orchestra sounded marvelous — powerful, nicely balanced and terrifically sonorous — as Joel Levine whipped the work into a veritable frenzy.
Barry Douglas has always been a popular soloist with this orchestra but his fourth visit here featured him in a concerto that hasn't figured prominently in his repertoire: Saint-Saens' “Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor.”
The work's unusual opening, an extended introduction for the soloist, illustrated that this was to be no conventional performance. Douglas indulged in frequent displays of rubato that suggested a more romantic than classical approach.
Douglas sat high at the piano, a position that afforded him greater leverage when it came to drawing a big sound from the instrument — so much so at times that his playing sounded heavy handed.
This concerto is filled with evocative filigree passages for the soloist but they rarely sounded as such in Douglas' hands. One felt at times that he was trying to oversell the piece.
In the finale, he pushed harder still. The combination of too weighty an approach with a liberal use of pedaling made it sound as if Douglas was trying to turn this concerto into something by Tchaikovsky — huge washes of sound and thundering octaves.
While many audience members cheered such grandstanding, this wasn't what Saint-Saens had in mind. Douglas' encore, the Prelude from Debussy's “Pour le Piano,” was fleet but lacked finesse. To paraphrase another well-known quote, this one from “The Fantasticks,” you wonder how these things happen.
— Rick Rogers