Howie Mandel, host of the TV game show “Deal or No Deal,” was once asked his thoughts on the secret to the show’s success. He said that his attraction to the program was the fact that it could be enjoyed on many different levels. One could agonize with the contestants, calculate odds with The Banker, or just sit back and enjoy Howie’s jokes.
Musical performances are often the same way. Each audience member can attune in and out of a variety of different sounds throughout each selection. However, in live performance, the visual experience is an equally important aspect. This, in an orchestra, is shaped most directly by the conductor. We audience members are involuntarily drawn to the conductor (try watching something other than the conductor at the beginning of a piece next time!)
A good conductor is well aware of this fact, and at the Abilene Phil’s Masterworks IV concert, David Itkin demonstrated that he understands this role quite well. The concert began with a charming and sensitive piece by Camille Saint-Saëns, the overture to The Yellow Princess. The piece moved around through various different moods, and Maestro Itkin captured the essence of each section through his body movements: bouncing in lively moments and flowing in the peaceful ones. Even his cueing motions reflected the nuance of each moment, both for our sake and for the orchestra’s.
Itkin presented himself in much the same way during the iconic Finlandia by Sibelius. The evening’s most sonic sounds came from this piece, and Itkin deserves much credit for this. His gestures and posture changed throughout the work, and the color of the orchestra changed with it. From sharp movements during the fanfare to rounder and more circular movements during smoother sections, the color and style of the orchestra changed as Itkin sculpted the music.
Much of the April 21 concert, though, highlighted the talent of local musicians, including some regular members of the orchestra. The average concertgoer may not be aware of the depth of musical talent and experience in our local community. Soloists Lynette Chambers and Samuel Cook, both faculty members of Abilene universities, are no stranger to the orchestra. However, the night’s most exhilarating performance clearly belonged to Mark Puckett’s. Puckett, Professor of Piano at Hardin-Simmons, delivered a rousing, virtuosic performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
As a conductor myself, watching Maestro Itkin conduct a concerto is a special treat. Itkin quite literally “wrote the book” on how to conduct a concerto with an orchestra (his Conducting Concerti is available on Amazon), which includes even a chapter on this specific Tchaikovsky concerto!
Itkin’s mastery of this art was on full display this evening. The maestro was clear in his timekeeping for the orchestra throughout, actually looking at Puckett’s hands several times through the performance to make sure their tempos were aligned. The two musicians performed almost a dance between them, with Puckett very animated while he played and Itkin coming to life with the orchestra took control of the piece – a visually vibrant way to end the evening.