Conductor Michael Christie began his relationship with The Phoenix Symphony ten years ago, leading
an audition concert of new Australian music that featured, among other things, the first didgeridoo ever
accompanied by the Symphony. Such brashness won Christie many supporters, and before you could
say Board of Directors, Christie was hired as the orchestra’s music director.
But music directors cannot live by the avant-garde alone, and the first didgeridoo to grace Symphony
Hall has remained its only one. This weekend, Christie concludes his octave of years as artistic head of Arizona’s largest-budget performing arts organization with a program that examples his strengths in
other areas of the symphony repertoire, namely, masterworks of the Romantic, Classical and Modern
eras. In opening remarks prior to Thursday night’s performance (it repeats at various times today and
Saturday; check www.phoenixsymphony.org), Christie said he chose the program to involve and
showcase the entire orchestra: Dvorak’s Scherzo Capriccioso, Op. 66; Mozart’s Symphony No. 38, the
“Prague” and from the 1950s, Polish composer Witold Lutoslawksi’s Concerto for Orchestra. That all
three works are somehow connected to central and eastern Europe was apparently accidental.
Last things first: Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra was the perfect choice of exit music. This unique, visceral, color-laden, rhythmically electric score shows off the capabilities, not only of
individuals and sections in an orchestra, but of a conductor’s ability to shape phrases and make good
musical sense while letting players’ energies be fully expressed. Christie was more than up to the task at hand, leading his players with total control and yet with a freedom that exhilarated.
Like the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra that came before it (and like the dozens since by all manner of
composers), the Lutoslawski provides bravura turns for the woodwinds, the brass, the percussion and the strings in their various capacities. This the Lutoslawski does in three movements: Intrada, which introduces the work’s combination of Polish folk tunes with resplendent orchestral color; the Capriccio notturno ed Arioso, with its lightly scurrying strings and salvos of trumpet notes, and, taking up half the work’s 30-plus minutes, the extraordinary Passacaglia, Toccata e Corale.
Christie and the Symphony plunged into this gold mine of a score and came up with bucketsful of
nuggets. The Phoenix Symphony under Christie has strings capable of acrobatic runs; woodwinds that
can carve melodies in granite; spacious, full-bodied brass and percussion that can pull down colors like stars shine. The showcasing of the percussion was especially apt on this occasion since, as Christie announced, this weekend’s concerts are also the final ones for the orchestra’s principal percussionist, Bill Wanser. Wanser has been with Phoenix Symphony for 38 years.
The concert’s first half was a mini-study in what the orchestra owned when Christie came in and what Christie has added to it over the years. The Dvorak was the kind of bravura, Romantic piece the
Symphony has been good at since at least the 1990s. From the pastoral horn calls to the swirling
passages in 3/4 that evoked the composer’s many Slavonic Dances, this was a big-boned orchestral study that Christie and TPS brought off with aplomb.
Eight years ago, the Symphony would’ve played the Mozart exactly as it played the Dvorak – like a Romantic score. But Christie has reshaped the orchestra’s approach to Mozart, making it leaner and giving it a decidedly more 18th century focus on form. This “Prague” was a transparent realization that made the listener aware of every gesture, every subtle change of phrase.
While this was Christie’s farewell to his tenure as music director, he has promised not to be a stranger to the old band. Next season, Christie will be back for three appearances under the new title, “Conductor Laureate.”