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"The curse of the bad pianists has been lifted!"

"Well, that was sure worth the price of admission!"

Sometimes, the offhand comments of audience members capture the spirit of a concert better than the meditated musings of a professional critic.

Those two quotes above, overheard in the University Theatre lobby during intermission at Sunday's performance by the Missoula Symphony Orchestra, pretty much told the story of the day. In a diverse program of works by Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy and Stravinsky, the highlight of Sunday's concert was the playing of the orchestra and its guest soloist, pianist Stewart Goodyear, in a performance of Mozart's 20th Piano Concerto.

Guest piano soloists are nothing new to MSO concerts. Last spring, the orchestra performed Sergei Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto with pianist Andrew Armstrong. Vague in gesture and fuzzy on details, Armstrong presented a distinctly underwhelming version of the Russian composer's virtuosic showpiece - but at least he got most of the notes right. During the orchestra's previous season, guest pianist Edmund Battersby presented a reading of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto that was remarkable more for the notes he missed than those he played. Curse, indeed.

Sunday's concert opened with another bit of Beethoven, the "Coriolan" Overture. This time, the great German composer's music came through loud and clear, with a muscular and dramatic reading by the orchestra.

After a minor set-up change, Goodyear strode onto the University Theatre stage. Diminutive and reserved as he sat down at the keyboard, Goodyear certainly didn't exude the aura of a demon-banisher. As the orchestra played the turbulent opening bars of Mozart's stormy concerto, Goodyear barely flinched a muscle.

But when he finally raised his hands to the keyboard, the 31-year-old Canadian pianist issued forth a musical response of perfectly measured proportions.

In this concerto, where orchestra and soloist do battle for most of the first movement before settling into a dreamy truce in the second movement, Goodyear brought all the right answers. Even when his fingers flew - as in the first movement's breathtaking cadenza - Goodyear's transparent physicality perfectly reflected his concise, focused playing. Each note felt intentional, measured to just-right balance with the music that came before and after - and with the orchestra, which provided strong and focused accompaniment throughout.

The performance brought the large crowd leaping to its feet in the end.

The second half of Sunday's program was devoted to two works, Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" and Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite," both dating from around the turn of the 20th century.

After speaking briefly to the audience about the historical importance of the two pieces, MSO conductor Darko Butorac led the orchestra in a hushed yet intensely focused performance of Debussy's deceptively difficult score, highlighted by the warmly expressive playing of flutist Margaret Schuberg. Aside from some early intonation problems in the horns, the orchestra handled Debussy's tricky scoring and ever-changing time signatures with confidence, shaping the music's unusual gestures into a coherent overarching narrative that drifted magically into silence at the end.

After a brief pause, during which the orchestra bolstered its forces with a small army of brass and percussion players, the music picked up seemingly where it left off, with the darkly mysterious opening bars of Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite." However, where the MSO players had managed to draw a clear picture of Debussy's impressionistic forest, it initially tripped on some of the vividly drawn features in Stravinsky's own musical woodlands.

Intonation problems in the low brass, followed by a badly misaligned series of flourishes in the woodwinds, put the orchestra on unsteady footing for much of the first half of the piece. Outright problems soon dissipated, but subtler issues of balance continued to obscure many of the Russian composer's remarkable textures and beautiful melodies.

Only when the music suddenly shifted gears with a loud thwap of the bass drum did the orchestra - and, it appeared, several surprised audience members - awaken from the slump. The ensuing Infernal Dance carried genuine excitement, highlighted by colorful percussion and aggressive brass playing that put the fire back in the bird.

The subsequent Lullaby shimmered with beauty, and led to a bravura finale, with horn soloist Vicki Johnson giving a beautiful rendition of Stravinsky's most famous melody and the orchestra responding with a vigorous ending chorale.

The Missoula Symphony Orchestra next performs on Dec. 5-6, with a program of Holiday Pops music. For more information, visit www.MissoulaSymphony.org.

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