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ASO features cellist in season opener

The Mishler Theatre provided an escape from the walking dead on Saturday night as conductor Teresa Cheung led the Altoona Symphony in the first performance of their 91st season.

This program could not have been a more vivid contrast of resurrection as the musicians brought back to life some of the greatest works of our culture.

Replacing the typically fast curtain-raiser was a slow and lyric piece for strings, “Sospiro” by Elgar. The writing was so delicate that we could hear every note the harp player (Alice Statham) plucked.

Maestra Cheung then presented a much more powerful piece by Elgar — the “Cello Concerto in E minor” — with soloist Sophie Shao. While not as athletic as most concertos, this work featured a wide range of expressive playing, and Shao rose to the occasion.

The orchestra had to pause for applause after the second movement, as the audience burst forth with appreciation for the most virtuosic section of the work.

Once again, it may be the case that we were lucky enough to catch, in Shao, a star in the making — a younger soloist honing her craft on the small-city concerto circuit before she reaches the top of her profession.

The second half consisted of Beethoven’s glorious “Symphony no. 7,” but only after an introduction by Cheung in which she reminded us of its role in the film “The King’s Speech.” Principal oboist Lenny Young began the work with a solo that functioned as a long inhale to the more nimble and joyful primary theme by flautist Tara Yaney.

Concertmaster Genaro Medina led a string section through many dramatic rhythms and textures, yet I was struck by the rock-solid playing of longtime ASO timpanist Dan Armstrong.

The credit goes first to Beethoven for the creative parts in each movement, but Armstrong played them with the kind flair that elevates the formerly-known-as “kettle drums” to the beating heart of the ensemble.

Teresa Cheung went through a 40-minute aerobics workout by the end of the piece, and her every cue to Armstrong was met with the subtlety or thunder she requested in order to make the master’s music come alive.

Timothy Melbinger teaches music at Penn State Altoona.

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