The Tucson Symphony Orchestra likes to get ahead of big celebrations like landmark birthdays of famous German composers.
Which explains why Music Director José Luis Gomez is devoting the 2019-20 season to Ludwig von Beethoven’s 250th birthday. So what if the actual date falls in December 2020, right? Let’s get the party started!
On Friday night before a pretty full Tucson Music Hall audience, Gomez did just that, leading the orchestra in the first of several concerts centered on Beethoven’s music. The season-opening program kicked off with his Piano Concerto No. 3, performed by Van Cliburn-winning Korean pianist Yekwon Sunwoo and ended with Beethoven’s powerful Symphony No. 7, a chest-thumping, toe-tapping thrill ride made even more thrilling under Gomez’s baton.
Gomez teased out the Seventh’s long, slow introduction, allowing the winds and the strings to build the excitement to a point that we thought they would go all bombastic Beethoven on us before reigning them in to allow the subtlety of the music to take over. He brought out the sweetness of the second movement with strings that sang only to be interrupted by a quick burst of percussion.
When the winds joined in, there was a lovely fluidness to the music that allowed it to float over the hall and linger.
Of course, a Beethoven symphony, even one as joyful as the Seventh — which is arguably Beethoven’s most joyful symphony of the nine he penned — cannot end on a quiet note. This one trades bombast for exhilaration, a point Gomez emphasized with a spirited rush of frenetic strings that provided occasional calm in the storm of winds and brass chiming in triumphant blasts punctuated by the rumble of the timpani.
By the time Gomez lowered his baton, we all needed to take a breath.
Gomez opened the night with Sunwoo, with whom he shared a stage when Gomez guest-conducted the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 2017.
The pair have great chemistry, which was on display Friday night throughout the 35-minute concerto. Gomez would shoot a quick smile in Sunwoo’s direction and the pianist would light into a fiery passage, fingers dancing over the keys. During quieter solo turns, Gomez would sway at the podium as Sunwoo almost tip-toed over the notes with technical procession, spilling out softly sweet, colorful melodies.
Sunwoo and the orchestra will repeat the concert at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22.
The orchestra continues its homage to Beethoven with his Symphony No. 4 at the TSO’s MasterWorks series Oct. 5-6. By the time the season ends in the spring, the orchestra will have performed eight of the nine Beethoven symphonies. It is skipping No. 9, Beethoven’s behemoth choral symphony, because the orchestra performed it in spring 2018.