The good thing about the El Paso Symphony Orchestra's conductor search going into a second season is it's a great way to experience different personalities, styles, repertoire and philosophies.
The bad thing about the search going into a second season is, well, you just kind of wish they'd get on with it. Six conductors were auditioned last season, with varying results. All six made the orchestra sound better than it had the previous season.
The two guys I thought might make the cut didn't. David Handel and Michael Butterman apparently didn't have what audiences, the musicians, the board or the 10-member search committee were looking for. Neither did Kenneth Raskin, who had the unenviable task of going first over the course of the six-program, 12-concert season, nor Mariusz Smolij, who went last.
Two others, Lawrence Loh and Peter Rubardt, made enough of an impression to be asked back. Loh will conduct the January concert, Rubardt the February.
Arthur Post, who runs Colorado's San Juan Symphony and Ontario's Thunder Bay Symphony, was first up this season and the youthful, Yale- and Harvard-educated maestro certainly made a good impression Saturday, the second of his two performances with the orchestra at the Plaza Theatre.
Post's passion was obvious, his attention to detail refreshing, his affability unforced and the program he chose, one of four submitted, according to a post-concert Q&A with the audience, had a little bit of everything for the casual listener and aficionado.
Since this is an audition, and Post is officially the seventh candidate to take the podium, the program was designed less like the thematic seasons he programs for his two orchestras and more to show a taste for traditional and new repertoire to his potential employer's audience. He elevated the orchestra's game and benefitted from the sensitive piano playing of guest soloist Ilya Yakushev (though the guest soloist is hired by the orchestra, not the conductor).
The two guests, who had never worked together until Wednesday's rehearsal, hit stride with the orchestra on Beethoven's third piano concerto, which ended the first half of the program. It's a piece of emotional beauty and dramatic depth, chosen to kick off a concert series tied in with "Rembrandt, Rubens and Golden Age Painting of Europe 1600-1800," a touring exhibit that opened Sept. 15 at the El Paso Museum of Art.
Beethoven began writing the three-movement piece at the end of that era, in the late 1790s, as his hearing was beginning to fade, classical structuralism began to give way to emotionalism and composers became stars as they slowly emerged from a patronage system that subjugated them to the aristocracy and the church.
Yakushev, a young New York pianist originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, showed a delicate touch on the concerto, digging deep into the music's emotional core, seemingly channeling Beethoven while seldom letting his technique get in the way. Saturday's audience responded by quickly rising to its feet, some shouting "bravo" right away. Yakushev responded with an encore.
Tchaikovsky's episodic 40-minute, four-movement fourth symphony followed in the second half, a standard or "chestnut," as Post calls them, but a piece that in this context shows just how far classical music had gone in allowing a composer to wear his heart on his sleeve as a result of the so-called Golden Age.
This one expresses inner pain, conflict and resignation as Tchaikovsky, a brilliant melodicist, worked through his own fate as a homosexual man trying to live in a world that showed no tolerance for his kind. It's a captivating piece, with a lot of moving parts and melancholic themes. Post deftly guided the orchestra through the paces, moving it along briskly without rushing the tempos, and the orchestra fired on all cylinders, something that doesn't always happen.
The concert opened "The Star-Spangled Banner," a season-opener tradition that could easily be extended to every concert. Post chose to open the concert with a 2011 fanfare called "Count Up," written by pianist Stewart Goodyear to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Paavo Jarvi's music directorship of the Cincinnati Symphony and the 50th anniversary of a public radio station there. It's a short, lively, heavily percussive piece that relied more on rhythmic drive than melodic content, but isn't as busy or discordant as some of the newer pieces other conductors have programmed here in recent year.
Whether Post made the kind of impression that will count up in his direction remains to be seen. He certainly said and did a lot of the right things to earn serious consideration — including a desire to reach out to the Latino community and expressing in interest in having a chorus with which to work.