The Boise Philharmonic capped off a dynamic season with a performance of one of classical music’s greatest works — Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — before a sold-out audience at the Morrison Center on Saturday night.
Led by guest conductor Alexander Mickelthwate, the seventh and final candidate for the Boise Phil’s music director position, the performance was richly layered with nuance, color and power.
Mickelthwate, a German national who’s now an American citizen, is currently the music director for Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in Manitoba, Canada, where he’s been for 11 years. This is his second time conducting in Boise. He stepped in for exiting music director Robert Franz in 2014.
Now he hopes to add Boise to his repertoire. He also is a finalist for the Fresno Philharmonic’s music director position in California. The announcement of the new music director will happen sometime in early to mid-May.
Energetic and playful, Mickelthwate established an easy rapport with the audience and had an engaging presence on the podium. He was visibly tickled at the sold-out performance and was fully, physically committed to the process.
With his program, Mickelthwate sought to offer a glimpse into Beethoven’s creative breadth — in a very interesting way.
It opened with Beethoven’s “Leonore Overture No. 2,” from his opera “Fidelio.” It’s a piece that’s not done often. Written nearly 20 years before the Ninth, the piece is a work in progress. The composer revised it for the official premiere of the opera in 1806. And like the Ninth Symphony, it is infused with Beethoven’s vision of freedom from political oppression, inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution.
Mickelthwate and the orchestra tackled it with ease, handling its somewhat tricky entrances and exits well. It made a nice beginning to the evening.
The second piece was Kevin Puts’ 21st-century composition “Inspiring Beethoven,” a tone poem that imagines Beethoven’s struggle to compose his Seventh Symphony.
Here’s where Mickelthwate really showed his stuff. He spent several years with as an assistant and associate with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he honed his tastes and talents for new classical music.
Contemporary classical music can be challenging to audiences, but Mickelthwate described the piece in such a delightful way, it helped people visualize Puts’ intention.
It worked, and the orchestra dove into this difficult and complex 12-minute composition and aced it — from its powerful percussive opening, through Beethoven’s familiar themes to a completely serene, almost meditative, ending. Mickelthwate dynamically engaged the musicians both physically and musically during the piece.
The main event — Beethoven’s epic Ninth Symphony — filled the second half of the evening. The Ninth is a touchstone for audiences and orchestras and a great way to end a season that’s been filled with dynamic and energetic performances.
Beethoven composes music of extreme muscularity and power —something that often requires a large number of musicians and singers.
So, without a huge orchestra to work with — although the Phil and chorale were at their maximums — Mickelthwate focused on musical shading and depth in the piece that offered a layered experience.
With a sure hand, Mickelthwate played with the dynamics and levels of the piece, which showcased the musician’s flexibility and depth of experience. He kept the tempos crisp without feeling rushed.
He and the orchestra really danced together on this one, from the opening movement that starts with far-off ethereal tones to the percussive excitement of the second to the almost transcendent quality of the third.
The latter is where Mickelthwate really tinkered with the tempos and dynamics of the piece, bringing out an almost surreal beauty to the music.
The final, fourth movement was an exciting finish to the piece. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” speaks to a future vision filled with peace, hope and harmony. Maybe a far cry from where we are today, but a great reminder that the vision still exists.
The chorale was joined by four fantastic guest soloists — soprano Lara Ciekiewicz, mezzo-soprano Kathryn Leemhuis, tenor Brian Cheney and baritone Timothy Jones. Jones’ warm, robust baritone opened the vocal section and resonated throughout the hall, and Ciekiewicz’s high notes sparkled.
The finale swelled with the famous “Ode to Joy” motif, which brought you back to the beauty and simplicity of the piece. It filled the Morrison Center with a long series of cheers and curtain calls.