The tuxedo was designed for no other reason than to make a man look good while standing still, preferably holding a champagne flute. It's an awful thing to wear for any activity that requires freedom of arm movement, like, say, playing an instrument. As a former orchestral cellist, I'd rather wear a suit of armor. That any orchestra, especially a community orchestra, still clings to this tradition baffles me.
Yet there they were at the Puget Sound Symphony Orchestra at Town Hall on Saturday, May 21: row after row of penguins. PSSO couldn't have been wearing tuxes to create a sense of formality, since everything else about their concert was purposefully casual: the late start time, conductor Alan Shen's comic banter, the 40-minute intermission, the somber Italianate bagatelle for 10 cellos written by Chris Dyer and offered as sherbet between Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto and Sibelius' Second Symphony. Casualness is one of PSSO's selling points, along with rock-bottom ticket prices ($3 to $8) and the enthusiasm of young musicians (very few players are over 30) happy to be there even without the lure of a paycheck.
Founded by Shen in 1999, the orchestra used to sound pretty scrappy; now the least generous thing I can say about their playing is that it's somewhat unpolished. Shen's programming is canny, split between difficult music and unproblematic music. The ambitious pieces push the players to improve, and make every concert an occasion ("Wow, I can't believe they're tackling that!"). Then there are works like George Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, Saturday's concert opener, that aren't about highly polished execution but about swirly, trippy orchestral sound effects and cumulative energy.
Energy they have no problem with. But musicians also have to know just how to harness their energy, and here's where Shen's skill at musical pacing comes in. It's a matter of selecting the ideal tempo to begin with, then marshaling subtle tempo inflections as needed, to create the desired effect: timeless suspension, hurtling forward motion, or anything in between. (Shen's clean, economical baton technique also helps.) Sensitive control over pacing is a good example of how a conductor can make a performance exciting, independently of whether the players have every t crossed and i dotted. The slow interludes in Sibelius' third movement and the symphony's heart-swelling closing bars were absolute magic for just this reason. The finale also offered some spotlight moments for the brass section that were shining, visceral, and lyrical by the standards of any orchestra in the area.
The Rachmaninoff, with soloist Amy Chen, was another matter: Passages that should float, i.e., the opening of the slow movement, landed with a thump on every downbeat. It was proficient but logy throughout—and a surprise, considering the verve of the rest of PSSO's concert.