Review: ASO performs colorful, visual show

In a concert designed to salute the visual arts in general – and an Altoona artist in particular – the Altoona Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Maestra Teresa Cheung, presented a colorful program of music Saturday night at the Mishler Theatre.

Projected onto a screen above the orchestra was a slideshow of nearly 100 paintings by Joe Servello – his interpretation of the pictures in Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” It certainly added a complementary layer to the beautiful music, making this concert memorable for both the ear and eye.

Even before the first downbeat, the expanded size of the orchestra was immediately apparent to the eye, with two harps and larger wind, brass and percussion sections. The poor double basses were in the dark of stage left on the fringe of the massive ensemble.

In stark contrast to the curtain raisers we have come to expect, Maestra Cheung began the concert with a slow and delicate piece – Liadov’s “The Enchanted Lake.” While no instruments had traditional solo lines, every melodic fragment we did hear stood out against the shimmering textures in the strings throughout the piece, which must have taken a great deal of concentration to maintain.

The second piece, Debussy’s “La Mer” (also about water) was much more complex, although still primarily quiet and suggestive in depiction. The notable exceptions were when the brass players came together for the majestic climaxes of the first and third movements.

Cheung would introduce Servello after intermission and tell the story of how he came to her with his art about “Pictures at an Exhibition” a few years ago, and as such, the evening was a culmination of a long collaboration.

Mussorgsky wrote the 10 movements inspired by single pictures, but on this night, we saw several different paintings by Servello for each piece, and it helped convey some of the motion implicit in the music.

Though not planned, it was charming to see when members of the orchestra, when not playing, would watch the screen (and no one seemed to miss a subsequent entrance). The work would have been a triumph without the art, as Ravel’s amazing orchestration of the original piano work consists of one stroke of genius after another.

Cheung made the all of the tricky transitions in the continuous movements sound perfectly natural and then tempered the long crescendo to the last section (“The Great Gate of Kiev”) with both energy and restraint so that the brilliant arrival would fulfill our expectations as a powerful climax to the entire work.

Melbinger teaches music at Penn State Altoona and from his home in Hollidaysburg.