Tucson Symphony Orchestra ended its classics series Friday night with the return of guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen, culminating a season that saw the introduction of conductor designate José Luis Gomez and a reinvigorated orchestra.
That was on full display Friday night in the first of two performances of "Sailing with Scheherazade," a concert anchored by Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic suite retelling the Persian tale of “One Thousand and One Nights."
The piece is a concerto for orchestra, with each section getting a chance to solo. The biggest solo role went to Concertmaster Lauren Roth, who we have watched blossom in her three years at the helm. On Friday night, she was perhaps at the best we've seen her — which is saying a lot since she has rarely if ever been anything less than terrific. She exuded a confidence and warmth in her playing that the violin section followed throughout. When they played together, they sounded like one big instrument.
The orchestra was the star of the concert, its own special guest soloist, and Chen enjoyed the dual role of star cheerleader and ringleader. She is a dynamic conductor with boundless energy and enthusiasm. She hopped in place, let her hands dance frenetically as she waved to the percussion section in the back of the stage or the brass instrumentalists next to the bass section. But her movements were measured and thoughtful; when Roth was soloing or duetting with the harp, Chen stood quietly, her head down. She would gently point toward the harp to keep the time, but she allowed Roth room to take the music where she felt it needed to go.
Throughout "Scheherazade," Chen kept the pace precise and spot-on, creating a giant singular voice from every section. In "Four Sea Interludes," a first for the orchestra, Chen brought out the work's full energy and bravado from the opening rumble of strings, carried by the violins, to the ever-present sense of catastrophe in the air. Chen made you think that the piece could go off the rails any second, but she never let it get that far. It was like being a part of the sea the piece celebrates without leaving the desert.
Chen and the orchestra opened the concert with Smetana's tone poem "The Moldau," a 12-minute piece that was exciting from the twin flute introduction to the rushing finale.
Chen and the TSO will repeat the concert on Sunday afternoon. And while it's the final classics concert of the season, the TSO isn't putting the 2015-16 season to bed just yet. Coming up:
• A fundraising pops concert with legendary singer/songwriter Judy Collins at 8 p.m. Friday, April 22, at Tucson Music Hall. Orchestra musicians are donating their time and proceeds will fund the orchestra's Family Concerts series. (Check out Caliente next Thursday to learn about Collins' special Tucson ties.)
• The Family Concerts series concludes April 30 with two performances of "Cindy Ellen: A Wild Western Cinderella," a hilarious retelling of Cinderella, Southwest style, based on the book by Tucson author Susan Lowell with music composed by the TSO's Young Composers Project instructor and assistant principal violist Ilona Vukovic-Gay. Guest Conductor Michael Hall will be at the podium for two performances, at 2 and 3:30 p.m.
• The TSO String Quartet will perform works from this year's Young Composers Project class (ages 9 to 18) during the first of three readings sessions at 7 p.m. May 13 at Tucson Symphony Center, 2175 N. Sixth Ave. The full orchestra will perform more of those pieces in two performances at Catalina Foothills High School, 4300 E. Sunrise: at 7 p.m. May 14 and 2 p.m. May 15. Click here for details.