Tucson Symphony Orchestra's newly inaugurated conductor designate earned a standing ovation and a chorus of woo-hoos even before he took the podium at Tucson Music Hall Friday night.
The applause began moments before José Luis Gomez stepped foot on stage and continued throughout the evening, his first concert with the orchestra since he was named to replace longtime conductor George Hanson earlier in the week.
The Venezuelan-born, Spanish conductor won over the TSO selection committee largely because of the connection he made with the musicians in two appearances since the orchestra launched its search 2 1/2 years ago, TSO CEO and President Mark Blakeman told a couple hundred people at the pre-concert talk Friday night.
That chemistry was in play throughout Friday's concert, from the stirring performance of Respighi's "Fountains of Rome" to open the night to the emotionally charged turn at Richard Strauss's "Death and Transfiguration" at evening's end. With a light touch and small gestures, Gomez coaxed crisp, fluid performances from all sections of the orchestra. The woodwinds, which had a big role in the Respighi, sang out like a fine-voiced chorus; the strings soared and swooned in Strauss's mournful lament of pending death as principal percussionist Homero Ceron tapped out a heartbeat on the timpani
Sandwiched in the middle was TSO Concertmaster Lauren Roth making her Classics series solo debut with Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor. We have come to admire Roth's singular voice in the string section when she is given the spotlight. But with the exception of a solo during a 2014 MasterWorks concert, we haven't had a chance to see this side of her — the violinist at center stage and dressed for the role in a floor-length sleeveless red gown. Roth turned in a spirited, soul-shocking performance especially in the melodic second movement.
On any other night, Roth's performance would surely have been the big headline-grabbing moment. But Friday was a night filled with those moments including in the finale of the Strauss. As the final notes faded into the hall, everyone on stage, from Gomez to the percussionists froze. The string players held their bows to the strings; the wind section rested their instruments on their lips. No one moved a muscle; it was completely still for what seemed like a minute but was probably closer to 30 seconds. It was dramatic exclamation point and one that really connected the audience to the piece's emotional angst.
When Gomez and the orchestra lowered their heads, the applause machine roared into action and the audience bolted to its feet. Gomez obliged them with a pair of encores — each greeted with a standing ovation — including the University of Arizona fight song "Bear Down, Arizona." At one point he turned to the audience, inviting them to sing the anthem. Sadly, very few took him up on that and we missed out on a chance to turn Music Hall into a Wildcats pep rally.
Friday's concert repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 21, at Tucson Music Hall.