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    Review: No waddling for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra

    Jon W. Sparks - The Commercial Appeal -

    The first Masterworks concert of the season for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra stepped off to a quacking good start Saturday night.

    As the band played Sousa's "King Cotton" march, The Peabody ducks strolled on stage along red carpets and brought laughter and applause for the surprise that maestro Mei-Ann Chen had arranged.

    It was a small thing, but indicative of the MSO's ongoing intention to banish stuffiness and lighten up even its most conventional concerts.

    The orchestra got more traditional in short order as it commenced to play Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," with guest artist Gabriela Montero on piano handling the much-loved melodic piece. The orchestra was solid and Montero's skill and control at the keyboard made the work thoroughly enjoyable.

    Her encore, however, really got the audience at the Cannon Center in the mood. The Venezuelan-American Montero is known for her improvisation of complex musical pieces and Saturday night, she opened it up to the audience to suggest a musical passage, preferably, she said, with a local flavor. Someone offered a phrase and in no time, Montero was riffing some boogie-woogie lines and saying, "Something like that, no?"

    Yes, the crowd said, and Montero turned it into a terrific blend that might well have gotten Rachmaninoff to loosen his starched collar. She took the theme and shaped it into echoes of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms while turning them into the Blues Brothers.

    It was refreshing, inventive and a welcome offering in the program, loosening up patrons for Mahler's "Symphony No. 1" in the second half.

    The composer's sprawling work ranges from bombast to variations on "Frere Jacques" to pastoral wispiness and even a touch of cabaret. All that activity was a blast for the musicians who laid it on with all the gusto that Chen demanded. Long as it was, it was energetic and often enjoyable in its bigness — not for nothing is the symphony called "Titan."

    The orchestra handled those big passages well, although some of the very quiet moments were a bit shaky. Still, it was an audience on its feet that cheered the evening's energetic entertainment.