Concert? It was more of a lovefest.
The rapturous roar that greeted JoAnn Falletta as she stepped onstage for the latest Long Beach Symphony Classics concert at the Terrace Theater the other night made palpable the affection that this community still feels toward the conductor who led the orchestra as music director from 1989 to 2000, and who was returning for the first time since then to guest conduct.
Throughout the evening, every time she turned around to acknowledge applause or returned to take a curtain call, the audience erupted in huzzahs. And her engaging spoken remarks exhibited all the warmth that made her such a beloved figure during her tenure here.
She hasn’t changed much. The hair is a shade lighter, but she still makes those sweeping arm gestures, still wields a long baton, still does that little head-shake thing. The years in Buffalo and Virginia have perhaps made her technique a little crisper, and her a more commanding podium presence, but she’s still our JoAnn.
So, to business. She demanded, and got, a big, brilliant sound from the orchestra for Shostakovich’s “Gadfly” Suite, one I’m not sure they could have made back in the day. The piece isn’t top-drawer Shostakovich; I don’t think film music was really his thing. But solos from Gary Bovyer on clarinet and concertmaster Roger Wilkie were gratifying and beautifully executed, and the four movements (played in a different order than the one listed in the program) passed the time pleasantly enough.
“Cinderella,” on the other hand, is one of Sergei Prokofiev’s great ballet scores, full of character, wit and charm, and Falletta drew all that out of her players, too. Wilkie and assistant concertmaster Chyi-Yau Lee had a hilarious comic duet as the evil stepsisters took dancing lessons, and principal bassoon Julie Feves was her usual impressive self in her solos.
After intermission, pianist George Li joined Falletta and the orchestra for Tchaikovsky’s monumental Piano Concerto No. 1. His performance was interesting. Li is 21, looks 12, and I sort of expected a young man’s Tchaikovsky, all dash and splash. Li was introspective at times in the first two movements, dawdling and ruminating over some of the more lyrical passages, and then turned up the heat in the zippy finale to display his dazzling technique. Falletta moved in as needed to restore order and momentum, and was with him every step of the way. Li’s encore for this all-Russian program was a knuckle-busting Rachmaninoff prelude.
The considerable merits of this concert were superseded by the sheer joy the audience felt at seeing JoAnn Falletta on the podium once more. The final ovation went on and on, and there may still be people there, begging for one last curtain call.
It is not to be. Tempus fugit, Falletta has moved on, and Eckart Preu takes over as music director next season. If he does as well at building a relationship with his audience as Falletta did, we’ll be in good shape.
We shall see.