The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra blazed its way into its 2021-22 Stella Boyle Smith Masterworks season with a balanced program well in the audience’s comfort zone Saturday at Little Rock’s Robinson Center Performance Hall.
Guest conductor Stephen Mulligan, associate conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, was a lively and fluid presence on the podium, particularly in the second half of the concert, and in particular in the early 20th century works that comprised it.
Mulligan and the orchestra were easily at ease with the four movements Maurice Ravel orchestrated from his six-movement piano work, “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” Mulligan took them at a fairly quick tempo, and after the warm applause, he gave the audience an additional thrill with the world premiere of a fifth movement, “Toccata,” which, with a few extra pandemic-driven months to prepare for this concert, he brilliantly orchestrated himself.
The crown of the concert was the performance of Igor Stravinsky’s 1919 suite from his ballet “The Firebird,” from which Mulligan milked every available ounce of warmth and vigor. “The Infernal Dance of King Katschei” was particularly exciting, as it should be, and was over far too quickly.
Young cellist Gabriel Martins gave a rich, warm and highly nuanced performance of Robert Schumann’s “Cello Concerto” in a minor.
And if the program lacked anything, it was that the curtain-raiser (after a stirring delivery by orchestra and audience of “The Star Spangled Banner,” a long-standing tradition for season openers) — “The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra” by John Adams — was too noisy and didn’t really convey that foxtrot rhythm until the last portion.
Orchestra management is playing things close to its chest on whether Mulligan, or any of the guest conductors this season and the previous one, are candidates for the orchestra’s vacant music director job. Mulligan would be a good candidate, though.
Martins, Mulligan and the orchestra repeat things at 3 p.m. today at Robinson, 426 W. Markham St. at Broadway. Covid-19 protocols require patrons to wear masks and show proof of vaccination. The concerts will be available via video recording next Saturday. Ticket information is available at (501) 666-1761, Extension 1, or at ArkansasSymphony.org.