George Hanson joked Friday night that Shostakovich’s monumental Seventh Symphony “Leningrad” is a work that only “comes around every 84 years.”
Actually, that only applies to the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, which has never in its history taken the plunge.
But at Friday night’s 85th season opener with TSO Music Director Hanson at the podium, the orchestra performed its first-ever “Leningrad.” The response — a rush of thunderous applause as the final bombastic notes hung in the air and a standing ovation from the 1,300 people half-filling Tucson Music Hall — might prompt the orchestra to rethink the piece.
“Leningrad” is not an easy sell, as Hanson reportedly told an audience last week at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. It has mixed emotions — opening with patriotic strains, meandering into melancholy and despair then blasting to the finale with a sense of hope and optimism — that need to be clearly stated. And it’s a monster, clocking in at an hour and nine minutes. It requires shared tenacity from the musicians and the folks watching them.
Hanson led the orchestra in an energetic and at times frenetic performance that built to these magnificent sonic cliffs. Just as you thought the piece would go over the ledge, Hanson pulled back and allowed the notes room to breathe. In a taut, well-paced performance, Hanson let us hear the distinctive voices of the orchestra: A crystalline flute, the soprano pitch of a solo violin, the thwapping clunkiness of bass strings played pizzicato and the fading yet constant tat-tat-tat of a snare drum.
The concert opened with Grammy-nominated violinist Jennifer Frautschi performing Glazunov’s Violin Concerto in A minor with terrific technical prowess and a warm, vibrant tone.
Friday’s concert was dedicated to TSO bass player Richard Leek and violist Rebecca Son. Leek and Son died within days of one another in August. Single red roses were placed on a chair and on a stool set off to the side of the stage in their memory.
The TSO also welcomed new Concertmaster Lauren Roth, who joined the group over the summer. She replaces Aaron Boyd, who left last season.
This was one of a handful of concerts that Hanson will lead this season as he winds down his nearly 20-year TSO tenure. He will leave after the 2014-15 season.
Several guest conductors — presumably candidates to replace him — will take the baton in the coming months. Hanson is set to lead the orchestra in its MasterWorks chamber series opener Oct. 18 at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Oro Valley and Oct. 19 and 20 at Catalina Foothills High School auditorium, and then won’t return to podium until he conducts the annual holiday concert of Handel’s “Messiah” in mid-December.