The review below appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of Oct. 30, 2005.
From the moment one walked into Popejoy Hall Friday night, it was obvious that this was going to be a New Mexico Symphony Orchestra concert different.
As expected for a program with a big choral component, the NMSO chorus rose up in rows across the back of the stage. In front, however, sat a gleaming semicircle comprising the entire NMSO brass section flanked on stage right by the percussion section.
It was a sign, confirmed as the evening progressed, that conductor Roger Melone had put together an arresting program that would challenge singers and players, not to mention the able production staff and, to a degree, the audience.
The concert opened with Fanfare Liturgiques, an evocation of certain Catholic Church elements written in 1952 by Henri Tomasi, a French composer who died in 1971 at the age of 70. As this piece displayed, he was a brilliant orchestrator who after his own colorful fashion ignored the thorny world of the 20th century.
In their briar patch, the brass showed off their expressive range, from bright and, yes, brassy, to the mellow and soulful, including a finely shaped solo from principal trombone Debra Taylor.
The following Symphony of Psalms by Stravinsky offered deep religious feeling and orchestral color of a different kind. Its singular aural palette consists of two grand pianos and an orchestra that has neither violins nor violas.
Written in 1930, this work requires, even now, a certain shift in the listener's expectations. Anyone anticipating glorious “Alleluia” shouts and exuberant cries of “Laudate Dominum” (Latin for “praise God”) would be surprised, perhaps confused, as some were 75 years ago. The music doesn't speak in a language that reflects a personal relationship to God. Rather, it goes back to an earlier concept of the Divine as an immense, impersonal force before which the individual can only bow in awe and fear.
Like Stravinsky's earlier The Rite of Spring, this music has tremendous energy and a kind of primal rhythmic drive. Its soft alleluias offer a shimmering contrast as they gently unfold in quiet reverence before the eternal.
The second movement, a double fugue—one for the orchestra and another in the chorus—reflects Stravinsky's masterful craftsmanship and the challenges he sets for the performers.
Under Melone's direction the NMSO delivered a taut, carefully focused reading that reflected the monumental quality Stravinsky sought in this work. The chorus, superbly prepared by Melone, sang with admirable precision and clarity to convey the music's goal of timeless ritual.
The second half opened with one piano, full orchestra and the shimmering world of Camille Saint-Saëns' Second Piano Concerto.
A contemporary of the composer summed it up neatly, saying it starts with Bach and ends with Offenbach, an apt description of the journey from the solemn piano solo opening to the breathless dash of the last movement.
Miguel del Aguila, the NMSO's versatile composer-in-residence, was the pianist, delighting the audience as he tripped through the work's fiendish demands at something like supersonic speeds.
The evening closed with a tantalazing foretaste of his Time and Again Barelas for orchestra and chorus, an NMSO commission in honor of Albuquerque's 300th anniversary celebration next year. The four excerpts, “Ignacio's Dream,” “Rhythm of a City,” “Ave Maria” and “Sunrise,” revealed his command of orchestral color and a flair for vivid musical characterization. Music for heart and soul, it spoke in a big emotional language that communicated directly to the listener. On April 21 and 22, 2006, the NMSO will premiere the complete work.