Altoona Symphony soars in season opener

The Altoona Symphony Orchestra began its 11th season under conductor Teresa Cheung at the renovated but still historic Mishler Theatre on Saturday night. It was a colorful program of orchestral showpieces with a virtuosic conclusion featuring piano soloist Misha Dichter.

For the 90th year, Cheung programmed a piece by the 90-year-old American composer James Cohn. While she typically begins the season with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Cohn’s “Homage” stood in for it with its frequent quotations and transformations of our national anthem.

Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Capriccio espagnol” was the highlight of the first half. There were serpentine solos by both clarinetist Smith Toulson and flutist Dian Gold Toulson in this Russian vision of Spanish music. The expanded percussion section provided the requisite percussion colors, but it was the string section that took over for the exuberant final, from concertmaster Gennaro Medina’s nimble solos to the violin section strumming in the manner of guitar playing.

World-renowned pianist Misha Dichter joined the ensemble for Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” — essentially a piano concerto in variation form. He displayed a command over the wide-ranging demands for the soloist while keeping an eye on Maestra Cheung’s numerous tempo changes in this quintessential Romantic work. While Dichter’s solo in the famous 18th variation was a high point, I was reminded that Rachmaninoff is an underrated orchestrator. We heard a wealth of colors from the ensemble and especially enjoyed the two outbursts of “Dies Irae” as a march. After one of the longest ovations in recent memory, it was clear that Cheung set the bar high for this season.

Timothy Melbinger teaches music at Penn State Altoona.