ASO’s 90th birthday concert provides intense music

The Altoona Symphony celebrated its 90th birthday with a concert led by Teresa Cheung at the Mishler Theatre Saturday night. Although there were balloons and an encore version of the birthday song, the mostly Romantic-era music was far more intense than festive.

For the concert opener, we were fortunate to hear a premiere by Altoona’s own David Villani. The delicately crafted “In Memory of Alden” was written in memory of his late father and brother.

Perhaps the most special moment was a solo that arose from a somber section in which principal trumpet Kevin Eisensmith’s notes glided over the restless chords. In a similar vein, the second piece was mostly fragile music.

Principal cellist Kim Cook played the solo part in Max Bruch’s near-concerto “Kol Nidre,” which sounded like a sustained prayer on Hebrew themes. The first half ended with an odd combination of some of Mozart’s neglected piano music as heard through Tchaikovsky’s orchestration. It had the graceful energy of both composers as well as the overstated force of the Romantic-minded Tchaikovsky. The final movement contained extended solos for both violin and clarinet, which Genaro Medina and Smith Toulson played exquisitely.

The second half, though shorter than the first, featured the weight of Johannes Brahms’ mysterious but gorgeous “Symphony no. 3.” Maestra Cheung had to be on top of her game for this, as we heard a multiplicity of melodic, rhythmic, and especially emotional changes in each movement. She took the first movement at a faster tempo than I was used to hearing it, and the ensemble responded with ease of sound in executing the gestures. Although this was primarily an ensemble piece, we heard principal horn Lisa Bontrager play beautiful solo parts in both the third and final movements.

It was Cheung, in the end, who had the most challenging part, as each movement swelled to a polyrhythmic climax before ending softly, which was both exciting and exhausting to watch, she guided the orchestra home.

Timothy Melbinger teaches music at Penn State Altoona.