Sunday, April 29, 2012

Alasdair Neale & the PSO, Extremely Impressive

Last weekend, April 21st, after a delicious birthday dinner, Dr Desert Flower and I went to the Phoenix Symphony to hear Brahms & Beethoven.  We'd exchanged tickets form an earlier concert where we were visiting our son & out of town, and when I saw that there would be a guest conductor, I was really looking forward to the performance.  Alasdair Neale has an impressive conducting resume, and I was delighted to hear him describe the three works that were going to be presented in a warmth, welcoming, non-pretentious, relate-able manner before beginning the first piece. 

The Phoenix Symphony Orchestra started with a Jennifer Higdon work, Blue Cathedral, dedicated to her deceased brother's life.  Dr Desert Flower enjoyed the piece.  I quietly endured it, as I've never warmed to Higdon's works - this being the 3rd or 4th I've heard performed live.  It was fine, just not to my liking.  But then the Brahms work, Schicksalslied Op 54, Nanie Op 82 were played, and they were beautifully presented.  Neale is a tall, thin man, with long Jack-o-Lantern from Nightmare Before Christmas proportioned limbs.  During the pianissimo parts of the work, he keeps his elbows close to his sides, and makes very small gestures with his hands.  Then, during fortissimo, he leverages his long arms and bends his knees, not just conducting, but directing, demanding, inspiring the orchestra before him.  I enjoyed the Brahms works tremendously.

Intermission passed quickly, and then the focus of the night's performance, Beethhoven's Symphony No 7 in A major, Op. 92 was played.  Wow.  Neale knew the work by memory, and did not use any sheet music.  On the conductor's stand he was animated, joyful, full of life, pointing to specific principals & second chairs to draw them forward, engaged, vibrant, fine tuning this German Engineered masterfully constructed and harmoniously presented work.  Neale appeared to be having the time of his life, smiling broadly when the orchestra responded with precision, admonishing them immediately when they over or under performed with a slight scowl and Immediate, definitive hand gestures, often specifically pointing to individual players to encourage or rein in their instrument's output.  Like an inventor who has personally hand crafted a 600 horsepower supercharged V8 adjusting each valve's clearances, each spark plug's gap, each cam's rise, and shifting the spark timing and biasing the flue-to-air mixture precisely to get the exact dynamometer readings his calculations predicted were possible.  And Neale showed such joie de vivre, such masterful engagement, that even the most stoic of PSO players appeared to be infected by his dynamic leadership and responded with a performance that stands out in my mind as one of the best I've ever heard the PSO put on.  I lead the standing ovation at the end of the Allegro con brio, and enthusiastically and loudly continued the applause for 3 curtain calls.  Neale, ever the humble gentleman, shook the individual hands of of the Orchestra's most impressive strings and winds who wowed him as much as his conducting wowed the concert hall. 

The next time I get to San Francisco, if I've got the chance, I am going to try and attend a Alasdair Neale conducted performance there.  Highly recommended.

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