A man sitting next to me at Tucson Music Hall Friday night summed it nicely: Watching the Tucson Symphony Orchestra tackle Beethoven and Bartók was a lot easier on the heart and soul than watching the Arizona Wildcats lose a close one against UCLA.

And a lot more soothing, as the orchestra, under the baton of guest conductor Danail Rachev, reminded us that Beethoven had a gentle side to his bombastic nature.

Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 6 in F major "Pastorale" at the same time he was writing the more fiery No. 5. Rachev performed the Sixth almost as an antidote to the Fifth with well-tempered, almost cascading, string passages that floated melodically toward some unseen nature setting. Aside from some thundering timpani late in the third, brought to startling life by Kimberly Toscano, Rachev let the work live up to its name.

The Beethoven capped a concert that opened with Rossini's arresting Overture to "The Thieving Magpie," which starts out with a rat-a-tat-tat that sounded like a military snare drum. Rachev drew crisp phrasing from the orchestra, producing an energy that never went too far. The performance was short, but terrific.

Hearing German pianist Markus Groh make his TSO debut was worth missing the Wildcats' Pac-12 Tournament debacle. Groh performed Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 3, which, according to the TSO program notes, has not been performed in Tucson since 1964 - six years before Groh was born. That also predates the arrival of all but one of the TSO's most tenured musicians, which made their performance all the more remarkable.

Groh is an artist with a capital "a": technically proficient, passionately in tune with the score and not one to get caught up in showy displays. His fingers danced lightly over the keyboard like a ballet dancer, but the sound he produced was powerful and pronounced. He balanced out Bartók's bursts of dissonance with sublime reminders of the composer's intent to write a love song for his pianist wife in the months before he died.

The TSO will repeat the concert this afternoon.


Tucson Symphony Orchestra with pianist Markus Groh Friday night. The concert repeats at 2 p.m. today at Tucson Music Hall.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@azstarnet.com or 573-4642.