The ongoing search for a new conductor for the El Paso Symphony Orchestra is down to one last audition.
The guy who just completed his second tryout may have just complicated things for the nine-member search committee that has to come up with a recommendation.
Let's recap: Nine men have auditioned for the job vacated by Sarah Ioaniddes after the 2010-2011 season. Six tried out last season; two were invited back. Three new candidates tried out this season.
Now the search is winding down, with returnee Lawrence "Larry" Loh conducting concerts this weekend, and Peter Rubardt of the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra returning in February.
Loh certainly complicated things with his return engagement. A resident conductor with the Pittsburgh Symphony and music director of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Youth Symphony, Loh has been open about his interest in the El Paso gig. He has told the Times before that it would be a step up. "I very enthusiastically want to be the conductor," he said during an audience Q&A after Saturday's concert at the Plaza Theatre.
Saturday's was the second of two concerts that marked his return to the orchestra, with which he felt a special connection last season and seemed to enjoy again this time. Loh oozed more confidence from the podium this time around, and his interest in the area is strong enough that he flew his wife, two kids and in-laws in to check out the place.
Saturday's finale was a chance for the audience, the musicians, board members and donors to check him out one more time.
His performance was solid, building on what he showed last season. The program, however, was more mixed.
The opening piece by Germany's Paul Hindemith, "Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber," wasn't the most engaging music he could have programmed. He called it "bold." I found it jarring and disjointed, and it brought out a few sour notes from the orchestra, notably the violins and brass.
But it was all uphill from there.
Violinist Madalyn Parnas, 21, and cellist Cicely Parnas, 19, granddaughters of famed cellist Leslie Parnas, joined Loh and the orchestra for French composer Camille Saint-Saens' "La Muse et le Poete," essentially a duet between the soloists, who weaved around one another, Madalyn's clear, sweet violin dancing with the darker, more emotional textures of Cicely's cello.
Loh, so commanding and demonstrative during the Hindemith, showed a light touch on the Saint-Saens, and kept the orchestra from overwhelming the young soloists, whose participation was part of EPSO's eighth annual collaboration with El Paso Pro-Musica, whose El Paso Chamber Music Festival includes appearances by Duo Parnas last Thursday at the El Paso Museum of Art, today at UTEP and Monday in Las Cruces.
The program's second half was made up entirely of Englishman Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations," an intriguing and highly engaging piece of music that strings 14 variations around an inarticulated melody, thus the "enigma" in the title. Each variation is based on a different person from Elgar's life, one of which is a self-portrait, and the format allowed the composer to write short pieces that range from the collegial-sounding and elegant to the jovial, light and airy.
Loh confidently guided his troops through its varied themes, textures and tempos, and the orchestra appeared to be in good sync with its conductor, responding with a crisp performance and solid soloing, especially that of principal cellist Claudia Encarnacion.
This conductor search will conclude after next month's concerts with Pensacola's Rubardt, who has been asked back, like Loh, from last season's tryouts. They are in competition with the three new faces who tried out earlier this season, with Bohuslav Rattay, who wowed audiences and charmed the musicians in the October concerts, a strong contender.
Clearly, Lawrence "Larry" Loh did his part this weekend to make things difficult for the search committee.