On Saturday evening at the Saenger Theatre, the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra offered "Beethoven, Blue Jeans, and the 1812!," the fourth installment in what is becoming a popular annual tradition.
Saturday's concert was evidence of the concept's continuing popularity in Pensacola — the hall was sold out a week in advance — and also of its evolution. The orchestra played six pieces, only the first of which, "Overture to Egmont, Op. 84," was by Beethoven. Based on a work of Goethe's celebrating the expulsion of the tyrannical Spanish by the Dutch people and first performed in 1810, "Egmont" is a paean to national autonomy. Replete with echoes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, it set the tone (despite Rubardt's unfortunate slow tempo early on) for an evening built conceptually and musically around liberty variously expressed.
Three dances ("The Great Lover," "Lonely Town: Pas de Deux," and "Times Square: 1944") from Leonard Bernstein's "On the Town," vigorously interpreted by members of Ballet Pensacola, transformed political into personal "liberty," portraying three sailors on 24-hour shore leave in the Big Apple during World War II.
"Liberty" could also describe Maurice Ravel's "Piano Concerto in G Major" (1932), the jazz-influenced centerpiece of the program performed by guest soloist Adam Golka, who despite a towering cold, played with easy grace and flashes of humor belying the true difficulty of the composition. Ravel's independence from the French musical establishment, evident here in the bluesy winds and syncopated piano in a piece otherwise channeling Mozart, was legendary, and a stroke for freedom too.
Three works followed intermission, continuing the evening's theme. "Run" (1992), by American composer Michael Torke, offered a multi-textured tone painting of a body in free motion, with background chords held long and a foreground splashed with staccato brass riffed so quickly that even usually unflappable first trumpet Dale Riegle and principal horn Jeff Leenhouts seemed occasionally hard-put to keep up with themselves.
Next, fellow American Charles Ives' "Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut" (1935), evocative of multiple amateur bands of talented/talentless players at a July Fourth extravaganza outdoors, was the most free-wheeling of all, with intentional wrong notes and contending patriotic anthems delightfully combined.
The final piece returned to the moment and the political sentiment of "Egmont," and was the audience favorite: Pyotry Ilyich Tchaikovsky's "Festival Overture in E-Flat Major, Op. 49," better known as the "1812 Overture." Although Tchaikovsky professed to despise it as "very loud and noisy but without artistic merit," it is his most-played work, and continues to enrich his estate and legacy. Incorporating real church bells and firing cannon (the latter recorded for the Saenger performance using 18th-century guns), the work commemorates the Russian victory at Borodino in 1812 over the imperial Napoleonic army, yet another people's victory over impending tyranny. The rousing finale turns the strings loose — and they took full advantage.