Former Tucson Symphony Orchestra conductor Frederic Balazs was admittedly nervous Thursday night.
He was sweating the small details of the world premiere of his choral piece "Song - After Walt Whitman." How would the two young Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus tenors sound projecting from the balcony? Would you get the sonic effect from the middle of the hall as the full complement of another 26 boys on stage sang the wordless harmonies? Would it come together as he heard it in his head when he wrote it?
But, hey, he mused aloud, I'm opening for Mozart.
Balazs need not have worried. The TSO, under the direction of George Hanson, brought wonderful life to the notes on Balazs' score.
"Song" was the opening number in a concert that celebrated milestones, not the least of which was Balazs': The lifelong musician, who led the TSO for a record-setting 15 seasons in the 1950s and '60s, will turn 90 on Dec. 12.
The concert also celebrated the Boys Chorus' 70th anniversary and the 200th birthday of composer Robert Schumann.
Balazs wrote "Song" in 2008, inspired by Whitman's poem "Sea Drift." The music has a dreamy life-afloat feel to it, with sublime string passages that give way to impossibly high notes from the woodwinds and violins. The first violin and cello have solo turns, performed with flair and wonderful tone by Concertmaster Aaron Boyd and new principal cellist Xiao-Dan Zheng.
Balazs' texts are more harmonies than actual words, performed splendidly by the Boys Chorus. Sonic flourishes that punctuated the stillness and mystery of the sea included two choristers singing alternately from the balcony, and a wonderfully serene sound of an oboe d'amour also placed in the balcony.
It's not often if ever that we hear from the oboe d'amour. The 18th-century mezzo-soprano cousin of the oboe fell out of favor with composers in the late 18th century and has been employed little since. Strauss and Debussy reintroduced it, and it's made some guest appearances since, most notably in Ravel's famous "Boléro."
Balazs, who sat in the middle of the orchestra section for the performance, took his bows from the stage, led by the TSO Executive Director Susan Franano. On his way to the stage, Balazs paused in front of the first boy in the chorus and patted his head, drawing laughter from the audience. As he was making his way off the stage with Hanson after a modest standing ovation, he patted the same boy again.
Hanson paired "Songs" with Mozart's Symphony No. 41 "Jupiter," his last symphony, and Schumann's Second Symphony, which the composer, suffering from depression and poor health, probably felt might be his last.
All three pieces required a smaller orchestra, which gave Hanson the chance to set the stage in the European tradition - with the first and second violins split.
The orchestra also pushed the back wall of the Music Hall stage forward several feet, which created a better sounding board for the brass and percussion.
Hanson, whose expertise is in the German repertoire, was superb in both the Mozart and Schumann.
Symphony No. 41, regarded as one of Mozart's most popular, has a split personality: You're not sure if Mozart, in ill health, struggling under devastating debt and distraught over the recent death of his infant daughter, wanted you to feel elated or depressed.
It is these emotions that Hanson illuminated, especially in the fourth movement's extraordinarily challenging counterpoint, in which the orchestra plays five distinctive themes. With the violins split, the drama of the themes coming together in one fantastic crush was enhanced.
Hanson seemed especially animated throughout Schumann's Symphony No. 2, and with good reason. It's a delightful work, brimming with near bombastic gestures. In the first and second movements, Hanson exaggerated Schumann's drama and turbulence so that they sounded truly like the symphony's finale. It was surprising that no one in the audience applauded.