The Waco Symphony Orchestra opened its 2019-20 season with a program short in pieces, but plenty of hall-filling sound.
A robust performance of Richard Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) coupled with pianist Drew Petersen's rousing play of Franz Liszt's First Piano Concerto and the short but pulse-quickening "Millennium Canons" by Kevin Puts gave a smaller-than-usual audience its money's worth in sound.
While the dynamic range and technical complexity of the evening's works caught the ear, they masked an underlying musicianship. Strauss's tone poem told a musical story of an archetypal hero, complete with love interest, critics' sniping and battles against opposition leading to a final, resonant resolution. (Music director Stephen Heyde's opening explanation of the piece's motifs, by the way, was helpful in framing what the audience would hear.)
The work's full orchestration, requiring an orchestra of more than 90 players, not only presented a challenge in coordination and blend, but focus. Unlike equally long and large symphonies, "A Hero's Life" offered no breaks between movements for musicians to catch a breath or refocus on passages ahead. Once it started, the orchestra was in for the duration.
Ensemble size and play brought out the work's Straussian characteristics: full-throated fanfares and accents from deep brass sections; thick chords from the string sections that resonated like an organ; and lyrical solos, including concertmaster Sue Jacobson's nice, soaring play, spinning out themes.
Petersen proved equally capable in the Liszt concerto, with its booming chords, keyboard-spanning play and note-dense passages. Volume and nimbleness, however, weren't the only ways he displayed his virtuosity. His arpeggios were buttery, individual notes smoothly and creamily connected, with a clarity in his fingering that made passages seem deceptively straight-forward.
In fact, watching Petersen play revealed more of the work's complexity than the output of sound: observing the variety of fingering and hand positions used for complicated passages yet with no distinction in how they sounded.
And, like the symphony's unitary tone poem, the pianist and orchestra ran through the four-movement work with scarcely a pause, leaving the audience wanting more. A standing audience brought Petersen back for two curtain calls after the concerto's end.
Puts' "Millennium Canons" prefaced the Liszt concerto to begin the second half of the program, a short but moving piece whose structure of overlapping play within and between sections — or even, in the case of two cellists, individual players — created moments of shimmering sound and rising crescendos that lifted listeners.
It recalled the work of film composer John Williams, not in a dismissive way, but in acknowledgement of Williams' melodic sense, firm sense of orchestration and ability to move an audience's emotion.
Thursday's concert also featured the recognition of players for a decade or more with the WSO: violinist Amanda Schubert and trumpeter Mark Schubert, 10 years; trombonist Brent Phillips and violinist Doreida Aleksi, 15 years; and English hornist Aryn Mitchell, 25 years.