It doesn't look like Peter Rubardt did anything to hurt his chances to lead the El Paso Symphony Orchestra.
In fact, he may have enhanced them this weekend with a performance that showed both his cool, laidback confidence, inventive programming and a passion that seemed to spread through the orchestra.
Conductor Rubardt, the fifth and final candidate for the vacant conductor's position, isn't new to local audiences. The 16-year Pensacola Symphony Orchestra leader was a candidate here last year, too. While he didn't get the job then (no one did), he was one of two guys asked to try again this year.
The other, Pittsburgh Symphony resident conductor Lawrence Loh, made his return appearance last month and made a favorable impression on the crowd at the concert I saw. He emerged from that weekend looking like a real contender for the post.
But it's got to be uphill for him. It's looking more like a two-man race now that Rubardt and October program conductor Bohuslav Rattay, who leads orchestras in Midland, MI and Lake Charles, LA, will duke it out to be the face, leader and music director of an organization in its 82nd year, and second since the departure of conductor Sarah Ioannides, now one of four contenders for the Tacoma, WA, orchestra gig.
Rattay's a real charmer, a younger guy with rock 'n' roll energy, loads of intensity and some inventive ideas, just the kind of guy who could give the orchestra, and the community, a shot in the arm.
Rubardt is a bit older and more laidback, with a comfortable-in-his-skin confidence, an easygoing personality and passionate, articulate flair that could resonate with folks on either side of the podium.
He scored at the box office this weekend. Friday's turnout at the Plaza Theatre was over 900, slightly better than average in this second season of the conductor search. Saturday's broke 1,200, one of the better turnouts of the season.
It also was a musical hit Saturday, the crowd giving the performance and conductor a long and spirited ovation.
Rubardt said in his pre-concert talk that the program he conducted last year was less "coherent," showing different facets of his programming preferences. This weekend's program was more inventive, connecting one of Ludwig von Beethoven's best-known warhorses, the Fifth Symphony, with Leonard Bernstein's only film score, a suite from the 1954 classic "On the Waterfront," just reissued on Blu-Ray.
They were linked by Erich Korngold's Violin Concerto, the first major classical piece he wrote after a long career composing for Hollywood movies in the '30s and '40s. Rubardt turned to an old friend, violinist Livia Sohn, to help him render it. Good move.
Rubardt did something this classical music neophyte appreciated. He took the microphone before the performance, calling the program a "little out of the box" and drawing the audience's attention to the segue between the third and fourth movements of Beethoven's Fifth, when it modulates from C minor to C major.
I looked for it and heard that transition when it came. Orchestra people have to remember that many people in their audience are not hardcore aficionados but classical babes in the woods, intimidated by what we don't know yet interested in learning more about it. We don't need snobs. If Rubardt gets the job, I hope he keeps doing that.
That said, the Beethoven didn't start promisingly Saturday. Rubardt's performance seemed to be more passionate in the first and most familiar of its four movements, though the Plaza's unfortunate ability to dampen an orchestra's sound didn't help.
But the musicians rallied in the quieter, softer second movement. By the time the fourth movement leapt out of the third, Rubardt was fiercely jabbing his baton into the air and the orchestra was right there with him.
The second half of the program was dominated by the movies, though violinist Sohn, in her first EPSO appearance since the Gurer Aykal years (and he'll return April 19-20), did her best to provide her own cinematic drama.
The movie influence was very obvious, sometimes distractingly, in the Korngold concerto, which quotes from some of his own movie scores (including "Juarez") and was reminiscent at times of John Williams themes to follow, particularly "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial."
It's kind of an odd piece, really. But soloist Sohn provided the kind of theatrics the concerto seems to demand. She's a small, but physically expressive player, her twisting body movements illustrating the turns of Korngold's episodic music. She's clearly a technically gifted musician, but she also brought a soulfulness and lyricality to the piece. The second movement was downright mesmerizing.
Rubardt took the mic again to introduce Bernstein's suite from "On the Waterfront," the Elia Kazan drama that made a star of Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint (who was here last year to introduce it at the Plaza Classic Film Festival) and took a hard-nosed look at union corruption on the docks.
"The best film music doesn't call attention to itself," Rubardt said. Not in a movie anyway. He further set the stage by showing a five-minute clip of Brando's famous "I coulda been a contender" speech, a nice setup and interesting choice considering the conductor is a contender here.
It's an idiosyncratic piece of music, moody and dark like the movie, with heavy percussion, lots of horns (including one passage played offstage by principal hornist Richard Lambrecht) and the kind of tense, driving rhythms you'd expect from a movie where danger lurks in the shadows.
It sounded like a challenge to play, but, minus a few obvious miscues in the brass, the orchestra seemed up to the task. So, it appeared, was the conductor, who looks and sounds like he could fit in comfortably here. Then again, so did Rattay.
I don't envy the nine-member search committee, which will make its final recommendation to the board, in March.
They could flip a coin between those two and we'll all come out winners.