Bangor Symphony Orchestra maestro Lucas Richman aptly named Sunday’s concert “Epic Sounds.”
The musicians on stage filled the concert hall at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono with what felt like an ocean of sound figuratively drowning the audience in crashing waves of music.
The program featured a concertante by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss’ tone poem made famous by the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey” and a new work, “Stargazing: Suite for Orchestra After Three Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler,” by Kenneth Fuchs, the 2021 recipient of the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation Composer Award.
Fuchs first encountered Frankenthaler’s abstract paintings in the 1980s when he was a student at the Juilliard School in New York City, the composer said in a recorded pre-concert presentation. He found inspiration in them ever since.
“Her works, for me, embody the spirit of Abstract Expressionism: visceral, sensual, uninhibited, probing — whether it be in a large, brilliantly colored canvas, or a tiny work on paper, with just a few dabs of color,” Fuchs said in a program insert. “I respond not only to her highly charged, evocative works, but also to her free creative attitude.”
The composer named the three movements after three of her paintings — Star Gazing, Stella Polaris and Lunar Valley. Fuchs, a professor of music composition at the University of Connecticut in Mansfield, created a vibrant work for a full orchestra, with a plethora of percussion instruments.
The music in the first movement glitters like stars in a clear night sky gazed at far from the glare of city lights. The second shines like Polaris, also called the North Star, for which the movement is named.
The final movement is darker and bleaker with what Fuchs’ called “searching melodic phrases and stark, unresolved harmonic tension.” He said in the program insert that the music is meant to be warning of “the world we risk becoming if we fail to control excessive population, consumption, pollution and global warming.” But it is those sounds of the night sky that followed the audience out the doors and home.
Fuchs is the third composer whose work has been premiered by the symphony in its partnership with the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation, located in Rockland. So far, each work has been uniquely modern while evoking the traditional styles of classical music.
While some concertgoers prefer Beethoven, Brahams and Bach, there is an immense joy in hearing a work for the first time that is always exciting.
The importance of this collaboration between the symphony and the foundation cannot be overstated. Part of Richman’s lasting legacy to the arts in Maine will be new works by living composers whose compositions will live on, hopefully, for centuries.
Gabriela Martinez’s piano performance in Rachmanioff’s rhapsody was passionate and precise but lacked personality. Guest soloists these days are expected to exude their own persona while interpreting the works they are playing as Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot did when he captivated the audience in January with Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor.
This is a minority opinion as the audience rose to its feet and cheered Martinez’s performance Sunday. The performance was part of Rachmaninoff’s 150th birthday celebration, and the symphony beautifully supported the pianist’s somewhat lackluster playing.
The concert concluded with Strauss’ absolutely epic “Also sprach Zarathustra.” Its opening moments are as well known as the opening notes of Ludwig von Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Once the orchestra got past that famous section, concertgoers unfamiliar with the entire symphony went on a journey of discovery with the composer, who based the piece on philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s epic poem.
On the whole, this concert surpassed expectations and, with so many musicians on stage and a nearly full house, signaled that the pandemic’s limitations on the symphony is finally over. It was a joyous and epic afternoon.
“Epic Sounds” may be streamed until March 30 at the Bangor Symphony Orchestra’s website. The final concert of the season, “Ode to Joy” will be performed at 3 p.m. April 30, at the Collins Center for the Arts. For information, visit bangorsymphony.org or call 943-5555.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the year Kenneth Fuchs won the commission and the location of the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation.