The review below appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of September 22, 2002.
Boldness and bounty marked the opening of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra season Friday night at Popejoy Hall. Some of the bounty was tangible. Executive director Kevin Hagen announced the symphony's receipt that morning of a $400,000 challenge grant from the Kresge Foundation.
There was also musical bounty in a varied program that lasted almost two and a half hours. And there was boldness both in the NMSO's taking up the Kresge challenge and in music director Guillermo Figueroa's challenging the musicians with Beethoven's mighty Ninth Symphony.
Figueroa's confidence proved well placed. The evening's performance revealed a new and spirited focus that promises a major upward shift if sustained.
This new spirit was immediately apparent as Figueroa set a breathless pace for the orchestra in its opening warmup, the overture to the opera Russlan and Ludmilla. Written in 1842 by the Russian Mikhail Glinka, the opera, except for its dashing overture, fell into obscurity. Like athletes ready for the big race, the musicians were quick off the mark, bristling with energy, delivering clean articulation and careful phrasing.
Violinist Philip Setzer then joined the orchestra as soloist in Shostakovich's Second Violin Concerto of 1967. A rather dark, edgy work, it is less frequently performed than the First Violin Concerto, which, like the Second, was written for the great Russian violinist David Oistrakh. It shares with the First formidable challenges for the soloist which Setzer met with impressively clear and consistently musical playing.
After intermission came Beethoven's Ninth, a musical marker in the freedom and scope of its movements including the first use of a chorus within a symphony. With its culminating proclamation of universal brotherhood and the mystery of the infinite, it also stands as one of the great spiritual markers for humanity.
Clocking in at a little over an hour, Figueroa charted a course away from the broad interpretations of the past yet not as feverishly brisk as some more recent approaches. It was lean, muscular, fit, the narrative sense sharp, the energy taut. It was an interpretation for our time, the deep spaces of the past replaced by a tensile strength and relentless forward drive, with quick gestures of grace rather than expansive asides.
Figueroa demanded and received a new alertness from the orchestra.
Their playing had an extra edge, their responses not only quicker but also more intense. They also responded to his call for more nuanced shaping of lines. He is clearly seeking that quality which makes an orchestra great, the capacity to be fully and acutely present at each moment.
The NMSO Chorus, solidly prepared by their director Roger Melone, and an able quartet of soloists handled the daunting, sometimes near impossible challenges of the final movement with admirable conviction.