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Vassily Primakov, Anne Harrigan at the Symphony Tonight!

The coverboy from June 2009.

(Update below: Dick Jaeger’s review in the local paper.)

I’m just back from another outstanding concert by the Lafayette Symphony Orchestra tonight, “All Tchaikovsky” starring the brilliant young pianist Vassily Primakov performing Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor. What a wonderful night!

I’ve looked forward to it for days, the way excitement starts to build up for important events. All week I’ve reminded myself, “It’s Saturday, don’t be late.” This morning when I woke up I thought, “It’s symphony day. Buy gas.” This on the same day the Purdue Boilermakers had a football date with the Michigan State Spartans. Usually on Saturdays in autumn I think, “This is game day.” But no, this was music night.

I carefully calculated the two hours it takes for me to get from home to the Long Center, an hour for driving and an hour for the time zone change. I made it just fine, an aisle seat on the main floor, a near-capacity crowd. Then I remembered the other thing that excited me and made me wonder about tonight, the return of Anne Harrigan, the former LSO conductor who’s now music director of the Billings Symphony in Montana and Battle Creek in Michigan. She was well-liked here, and though I never heard her concerts, I thought there might be an extra buzz in the air, and there was.

She was the LSO’s maestro from 1994-2005, nationally known for her innovative, multi-disciplinary programming – but I had a humbler reason for wanting to see her; the first time I’ve ever seen a woman conductor in person.

Of course I know that women are becoming more prominent in this formerly “man’s field,” with the likes of Sarah Caldwell and others – and since my mother was a bit of a pioneer in her previously-male profession, I’m all for women breaking every ceiling there is. Women priests? Yes, ma’am – which isn’t to say I didn’t experience a minute of shock a few years ago the first time I heard a woman chanting the Mass on Christmas Eve in my home parish. (She sang better than Fr. Ed does, clear and on pitch, but ohmygod she’s a soprano! I was plucked there for a minute, despite all my high-falutin’ principles.)

So what would it be like to see a woman with the baton? Ms. Harrigan was only slated to lead the opening “Cossack Dance” from Tchaikovsky’s 1883 opera “Mazzepa,” four minutes at the most; then the current music director Dr. Nicholas Palmer would take over for the rest of the program, including the composer’s Symphony No. 1 and the later piano concerto. So I was really curious, not only about how Ms. Harrigan would do, but how the players and audience would react to her, and how I would. I mean, how did they even get her to come back for such a brief appearance?

The “Cossack Dance” is a lovely little piece, pure Tchaikovsky, and on she came. I watched her; the musicians stood for her, but they do for every conductor, and what was going through their minds? She’d been on this stage many times before. What were longtime subscribers in the audience thinking?

She lifted her baton and free hand; gave the downbeat with authority; and a half-minute later I thought, “Women belong on the podium!”

I loved every second of it.

She probably knows the piece like the back of her hand, and of course she knows most of these musicians. But I found it delightful to see her in charge of the whole shebang. Her cues are clear, she’s very expressive with her body without drawing attention to herself – she just fits in that role. So I sat back and let Pyotr T. take care of me, paint me a perfect picture.

A few minutes later, end of cameo appearance; she received a bouquet and left the stage. I found myself wishing I could hear a whole concert she conducted. The company sounded great, crisp and clear and balanced. I’m no music critic but these people are well-prepared professionals.

Anne Harrigan, music director of Battle Creek and Billings.

The appetizer was great; I could have noshed all night just on that. Then Nick Palmer arrived to serve the entrée.

I suppose I watched him a bit, comparing the woman and the man, but I soon lost interest in that; he controls and directs his band more or less the same as she did, and after a minute I stopped watching him and started listening more deeply. There are skills involved in conducting, and both he and she are careful to do it well. Gender doesn’t matter, musicianship does; management of 100 egotistical/insecure people does, so they all work together as a team.

Dr. Nick introduced the 1st Symphony before they began to play, and I got the sense that this is a warm and personable guy with a winning personality, which is doubtless important in a small market like this one, where even after 60 seasons the conductor’s extra job is to make friends. Indeed, one of the attractions of a small-city orchestra is the close connection between the audience, the donors, the players and the staff. There’s no pretension or grandeur anywhere; we’re all there to love the music and the people who make it.

The Long Center seats 1500, and we all think we own a piece of these folks. We’re never surprised if we find a gaggle of cellists at the brewpub around the corner after the concert; where else would they go, the Hyatt? There isn’t one. Come, rub shoulders, it’s time to relax.

Again, I’m no musicologist, but I found the performance crisp and clear, well-controlled, with excellent balance. In short, these people are an ensemble. They know what they’re doing, they have an identity and a sound. That’s surely a tribute to all the musicians and conductors who’ve come before; the Guild and board members and administrators who have, for six decades, molded an organization that dedicates itself to excellence, even if most people have barely heard of their hometown.

How often is this replicated across the United States and across the world? They may not be Lenny’s Philharmonic, but they’re damn good, committed to their craft and their art.

Which is what I came to see and hear, people committed to their art. Because people like that, who practice and strive to improve every day, to take on new challenges, to learn new work, provide the rest of us who can’t do what they do with an example that applies directly to our own lives.

Me, I write; I try to do it as well as I possibly can. My friend Leonardo makes incredibly decorated pieces of furniture among his many media. My spiritual director Marcia had an amazing and versatile gallery opening last week. My friend Peter found his niche in the fashion world, where craftsmanship, daring ideas and practicality come together so our bodies are pleasingly presented. Some compose, some sew, some sketch, some paint, others perform, but we’re all in the business of lifting ourselves and our neighbors to a higher plane of existence. For heaven’s sake that’s worth a $35 ticket.

Dr. Nicholas Palmer, music director of the Lafayette Symphony.

After intermission came one of the highlights of the night, the dedication of a newly-acquired Bechstein concert grand piano. The last time Mr. Primakov, the pianist, appeared with the Lafayette Symphony, he played this instrument, rented from a fine piano dealer in suburban Indianapolis. One of the LSO musicians, Everett Klontz, who just retired after 50 years as a violinist with the orchestra, heard him and thought, “We ought to buy that piano.” But Bechsteins are costly, and small orchestras don’t have 80 G’s lying around gathering dust.

That retired musician, Dr. Klontz, is also a retired professor of physics at Purdue University; this is where the story really gets good, in that now-elderly man who is both scientist and musician. He heard Primakov playing it three years ago and said, “We have to.”

So, it took three years. Then on came Primakov, who’s all of 30, to dedicate the piano to the aged professor-musician by playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

The audience broke out in applause four times for that professor as he appeared onstage, the one who made it happen.

(The LSO doesn’t always do a great job of introducing its insiders to the audience; some board chairman type who never did give his name handled this segment. I guess we’re all supposed to know who he is already. But that’s how it happens in a small town. He gave the professor’s name and I will fill it in as soon as Dick Jaeger’s concert review is published in the Journal and Courier. I have no doubt it will be a rave; if it isn’t, I’ll call the editor and complain that it ought to be a rave.)

Here was this stooped old man, who dedicated decades of his life to physics, to his students and to fine music, now walking with a cane onstage to celebrate the arrival of a fine instrument, and to listen to it put to roof-rattling use by one of the most passionate interpreters of his generation.

Then Prof. Klontz walked off to take his seat in the audience, to listen to the exciting Vassily Primakov.

Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano concerto is one of the most famous compositions in the world; even if you’ve never set foot in a concert hall you’d recognize its opening notes. I sat back in my seat, shut my eyes and let the beauty wash over me.

That’s another reason we buy tickets; to experience sheer beauty. There are artists and philosophers who denigrate beauty these days as if it’s somehow banal (because they can’t reproduce or outdo it themselves, so they’d rather sell you conflict and clash, it’s more modern). But you have to take Tchaikovsky on his own terms, in his own era and place. He wrote lots of musical/mathematical conflict, as one section of the band takes up arms against the other, but plenty of harmony too in the broadest sense. He was moved by beauty (he was Russian!), and created as much as he could.

Concertos tend to be showpieces, and Primakov was entirely ready for his thousand arpeggios, hunched over his piano like a character from Victor Hugo; but he is subtle too. I sat there, watched and listened as this young man tried to show me how to hear the cries and joys of Russia and of art. When the third movement started I had to face the pain, realizing this live experience would soon come to an end.

And it did, with a big bombastic ending that follows, but changes, the conventional form of classical music; no one’s ever been able to improve on the basic idea of ending on a “high note.” Nearly every composer and performer has sought to send the audience out riding clouds. The finale should be a climax; give the paying public a climax.

Then occurred something I’m coming to recognize as unique to smalltown audience reaction; people feeling free to yell and scream as if this were a rock concert.

They don’t necessarily do that in big cities where a symphony concert is a high-society affair you’re supposed to show up at whether you like music or not. In big cities with high-prestige orchestras, audience members act with decorum, not enthusiasm, because half the time they’re more concerned with each other than the musicians onstage.

Not in Lafayette. When they hear great music – and we did tonight – they stomp and shout.

They’re grateful; Vassily Primakov came to Lafayette, because he knows Nick Palmer and had a good time here before.

We want him to come back! So we let loose and show our appreciation for all the musicians. That orchestra played so well tonight. Ms. Harrigan and Dr. Palmer could make me eat out of their hands.

Lafayette, Indiana is a “small town with big city entertainment.” I’m thinking of selling my house and moving back. I don’t want to miss nights like this; I don’t want fog or time zones getting in my way.

This band is just too good not to listen to every chance I get. Bravo!++

UPDATE: “LSO Shines in Tchaikovsky Show on Saturday,” by Dick Jaeger, Lafayette Journal and Courier

The large audience at Long Center for the Performing Arts saw a near phenomenon on Saturday evening when the Lafayette Symphony Orchestra and guest piano soloist Vassily Primakov mesmerized the audience in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor.”

The word I believe fits best is transfixion. The deep silence that permeated those gathered to hear this remarkable young pianist was immediately followed by cheers, shouts of “bravo” and prolonged applause.

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