Andres Franco didn't stroll out to the podium Saturday night at the Plaza Theatre. He pretty much bounded out.
Chalk it up to his youth. At 35, Franco is the youngest of the nine men who have auditioned over the past two seasons for the El Paso Symphony Orchestra's vacant conductor and music director position.
He's also the last of the new candidates. The rest of EPSO's 82nd season will showcase Lawrence Loh in January and Peter Rubardt in February. Both conducted last season, the first devoted to finding a replacement for Sarah Ioannides. The April concerts will bring back Gurer Aykal, the long-running and beloved maestro Ioannides replaced after he retired to his native Turkey in 2005.
Then again, Franco could have trotted out because he was excited about the program he cobbled together with the orchestra's conductor search committee, a classical treat that, he stressed in a post-concert Q&A with audience members, was "very, very difficult." That the young maestro and the mostly older musicians in the orchestra made it sound so easy spoke volumes about his musical leadership and their willingness to follow.
Franco didn't pick all of the program, as some of his predecessors have, but I doubt that will work against him in the evaluation process. Franco, associate conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony, knew going in he'd be conducting the first part of Georg Frideric Handel's "Messiah," both a showpiece and a reverent way to close a program that could help the more than 1,000 in attendance Saturday to ponder the real reason for the season, not the lights, songs and sales pitches that started in October.
In keeping with the classical nature of the three pieces on the program, the young conductor led a smaller, 60-member version of the orchestra through the Biblical account of Christ's birth, with J. Prentice Loftin, the 50-plus members of his El Paso Chorale and four Loftin-connected soloists bringing vibrant life to Charles Jennens' English libretto.
The so-called "Christmas" portion of the "Messiah" features nearly two dozen instrumentals, arias, choruses and recitatives. But the focused playing of the pared down orchestra (centered around Dena Kay Jones' light touch on the harpsichord), the disciplined power of the choir and the soaring voices of the soloists — particularly mezzo-soprano Melissa Parks' muscular finesse and the smooth baritone of Levi Hernandez — made the minutes melt away.
It didn't seem long before the audience stood on its feet, in keeping with tradition, for the familiar "Hallelujah chorus," every bit the spirited, rousing finale you'd expect on what had been an absorbing program of classical pieces.
The only real disappointment was how the acoustics muted the upper end of soaring sound, at least from my vantage point in the back third of the main floor seating area.
The first half opened fittingly with J.S. Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," sort of a prelude of what was to come and the only piece to feature the full orchestra. It's a beautiful and familiar piece, but under Franco's languid direction, the orchestra performed it like it was new and fresh, not a tiren old warhorse.
The program's first half concluded with Georges Bizet's Symphony No. 1 in C Major, the only piece Franco chose on his own, written when the composer was a rising star himself, only 17, with everything ahead of him.
Illness would end Bizet's life early, but not after he'd achieved great heights as an opera composer, whose best known work, "Carmen," is one of the most performed operas of all time. But his four-movement symphony is part of the standard orchestral repertoire, which gave a stripped-down version of the EPSO a chance to shine in a different light.
As Franco noted, without all the brass and percussion, it's a lot harder to hide the mistakes. I've been going to EPSO concerts long enough to hear obvious mistakes, even to this untrained ear. The beauty of this conductor search is nearly all of the nine candidates who've auditioned, including Arthur Post and Bohuslav Rattay this season, have coached out a lot of that.
The Bizet symphony, first performed 60 years after the composer's death, demanded restraint, discipline and subtlety. Franco and the musicians responded in kind, particularly on the hauntingly beautiful second movement, with its sinewy oboe lines (smoothly executed by principal oboist Janie Sanchez) and pizzicato violas.
Franco may have had his hands tied, creatively speaking, going into this weekend, but he made the orchestra sound good through restraint, not volume and bombast. He's a young Colombian native who speaks Spanish, has experience with a much larger orchestra, and, judging from his performance and post-concert Q&A, sounds ready and willing to roll up his sleeves.
He just might possess the right mix of qualities, including that youthful energy, needed to lead the orchestra forward in a unique, bicultural place such as this.