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The Missoula Symphony Orchestra may need to up its insurance. Playing behind the extraordinary violin soloist Robert McDuffie and his

$3.5 million violin on Sunday afternoon, our local orchestra sounded like a million bucks.

That McDuffie would wow the capacity crowd at the University Theatre wasn't really in question; Never in recent memory has the orchestra hosted a celebrity soloist of McDuffie's stature. This is a guy whose tour schedule reads like a ticker of the world's best orchestras: London and Leipzig, New York and Los Angeles ... and Missoula.

The Georgia-bred musician delivered in a performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto marked by breathtaking speed and heart-melting tenderness, in perfectly balanced proportions. Dressed sharply in a black suit and tie, with his brow so low that his eyes weren't often visible, McDuffie gave a focused and seemingly effortless account of this warhorse concerto, highlighted by a mesmerizing first-movement cadenza.

And that violin! "It's amazing to hear an instrument that great, played that well," noted my companion at the concert. "The deep register has this husky, throaty, almost jazz-singer quality to it."

But this concerto isn't only about the soloist at the front of the stage. Led by conductor Darko Butorac, the MSO provided a vivid and flexible account of Tchaikovsky's score. The slow middle movement in particular showed the orchestra at its top form, conjuring a lush pastoral backdrop for McDuffie's prayerful melody.

The audience erupted in a spontaneous, loud and sustained standing ovation - at the end of the first movement. Tradition be damned; this was one instance where such a response was fully warranted.

At the end of the performance, as the crowd once again stamped, clapped and hollered its approval, McDuffie mimed a bit of playful business about Butorac's considerable height. Butorac didn't need to play along. His leadership, and the orchestra's playing, stood tall throughout the concerto, with only a few minor misalignments here and there as the orchestra sprinted along at McDuffie's formidable tempos.

***

While the concerto was undoubtedly the centerpiece of the concert - indeed, of the entire season - it was bookended on this weekend's program by two works for orchestra alone.

First up was Jennifer Higdon's 12-minute piece, "Blue Cathedral." Written just 10 years ago in memory of the composer's deceased brother, this is contemporary classical music at its most approachable, with hardly a jarring harmony to be heard. As Butorac noted prior to the performance, Higdon approached the music with a mental image of a cathedral floating in the sky - an apt metaphor for the drifting, lightweight character of the music. The most remarkable feature came toward the end, when most of the string players began rattling Chinese hand-exercise balls, lending a shimmering quality to the music.

Ultimately, though, the exercise balls proved to be another apt metaphor: Compared with what was yet to come, this seemed little more than warm-up music.

The bulk of the concert's music came in the second half, with a reading of Jean Sibelius' First Symphony. Written around the turn of the 20th century, Sibelius' pictorial four-movement work is, as Butorac noted prior to the performance, "very much about nature," yet it is no walk in the park for an orchestra.

Characterized by unusual orchestrations that at times turn the orchestra upside down (the timpani play a significant melodic role throughout), and riddled with passages where colorful gestures jump from instrument to instrument, this is tag-team music at its most challenging.

The MSO met the composer head-on from the very start, with clarinetist Polly Huppert and timpanist Bob Ledbetter giving beautiful shape to the music's mysterious introduction. Later, even as Sibelius' overlapping melodic fragments cascaded like the fronds of a wind-blown willow, the musicians never lost sight of the forest, knitting together a patient crescendo that led to the first movement's majestic climax.

That first movement might have been the best this orchestra has ever sounded.

The same wasn't quite true of the two middle movements and the beginning of the last, where attention seemed at times to slip, particularly during the faster passages of the romping third movement. Apart from a single unfortunate miscue in the flutes, nothing was wrong, exactly; but it didn't all knit together with quite the same degree of coherence.

As seems often the case, though, the orchestra regained steam midway through the final movement, with a crash of the cymbals. Suddenly, the fragments were once again connected, swirling inexorably toward the music's exquisitely doleful coda. By the end, the exhaustion of the musicians was writ on their faces, and for good reason: They gave their all in this concert.

We in the audience walked away richer as a result.

The Missoula Symphony Orchestra returns to the University Theatre March 20 and 21 along with the MSO Chorale for a diverse program built around Osvaldo Golijov's landmark choral/orchestral work, "Oceana." Visit www.missoulasymphony.org for information.

Share your thoughts about the performance at Nickellbag.com.

 

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