Guest conductor David Danzmayr was at the podium Friday night for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra's "Best of Both Worlds: Daugherty Debut, Beloved Brahms" concert. Danzymayr, 35, is one of nine guest conductors vying to be the orchestra's next music director and conductor. He is outgoing music director of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra in Chicago and chief conductor of Promusica Chamber Orchestra in Columbus, Ohio. Next year, he takes the podium of the Zagreb Philharmonic in Croatia.
Here's a look at his performance based on three criteria: the music, his work at the podium and the audience reaction.
The program: Danzmayr bravely programmed a work that Tucson audiences have never heard before, Michael Daugherty's 2007 "Deus ex Machina" (God From the Machine), featuring guest pianist Terrence Wilson. The work is meant to take us on a train ride from the initial futuristic beginning of train travel to the advent of diesel-fueled engines that replaced coal-burning steam locomotives. The first movement opens with Wilson strumming the piano chords several times, starting at the lowest register, then gradually moving up, before sitting at the bench and playing dissonant almost scale-like trills on the keyboard. The orchestra followed along with string sections muscularly plucking and slapping the strings to create an almost thwacking sound that complemented the piano.
The second movement slowed the tempo but not the intensity. It's the movement meant to honor what the composer called "the lonesome train on a lonesome track" carrying the body of slain president Abraham Lincoln from Washington, D.C., to his home in Illinois. The piece concludes with a patter of timpani that mimics a train racing down the track. That sonic sensation is further realized with the strings joining in, played pizzicato at times, and with open hands tapping the strings at other times as Wilson, fingers flying, summoned the train's sometimes erratic heartbeat.
Danzmayr paired the "Deus ex Machina" with the light-hearted and very familiar overture of Bernstein's "West Side Story" and Brahms popular Symphony No. 4 in E minor.
The podium pitch: Danzmayr is an energetic conductor who seemed to gel with the orchestra. He coaxed wonderful energy and playful performances from all sections during Bernstein's "West Side Story" Overture and kept the orchestra on its toes for "Dues ex Machina." That was likely a more challenging task given the piece's sometimes erratic demands that called for the string sections to alternately pluck, pound and strum their instruments. For the Brahms finale, the orchestra hummed along almost on autopilot.
From all appearances, Danzmayr seemed to be most relaxed and at home with the "West Side Story" Overture and the Brahms Symphony No. 4. There was an awkward moment in the overture where the orchestra and conductor shout out "Mambo" (or was it "Tequila"?) when Danzmayr turned to the audience to shout the word, possibly expecting us to join in. But whether it was acoustics or a case of the orchestra playing too loudly, we weren't on the same page. We weren't sure what Danzmayr wanted us to do so no one sang along and Danzmayr became in inaudible chorus of one.
Standing ovation: Danzmayr didn't interact with the audience aside from facing the crowd during the failed Bernstein shout-out. But he got to relish two standing ovations, one that he shared with Wilson after the "Deus ex Machina" performance and one at the end of the Brahms. His performance of the Brahms was pretty impressive; the orchestra brought energy and passion to the piece, which the TSO had not played in nearly eight years.
Wilson got a second ovation after his encore, Mozart's "Turkish March" movement from his Piano Sonata No. 11, arranged by Arcadi Volodos. Wilson was simply a joy to watch as he played with unbridled energy and technical precision.