Shining, talented teenagers from Billings Senior High School, under the direction of Jeff Long, opened the season finale of the Billings Symphony on Saturday with a drum roll and a march, then played two melodic pieces, “Wandering River” and “Shockuhfunk.”
It was another star in their crown. The Senior High music department just won the Grammy Signature Enterprise Award for $5,500 for its excellence, one of only 18 awards nationwide. What a fit beginning to the evening’s performance.
Maestra Anne Harrigan then introduced Nebojša Zivkoviæ, acclaimed as “the foremost composer for marimba and percussion in the world.” And certainly one of the planet’s greatest soloists.
He came on stage dressed in a white shirt with a high, starched collar worthy of Beethoven, but with much more stage presence and charm. His self-confident smile said to the audience, “This is going to be fun. You’re going to enjoy this.” We did.
The opening bars of his Concerto No. 2 for marimba and orchestra were modern but not dissonant, mysterious, mildly disturbing. The tension began to build. Cascades of sound from the marimba, punctuated with plucks from the strings, gave momentary relief to the listener.
At one point, I realized that I was holding my breath. A short harp glissando provided another break, but not for long.
I was sitting on the edge of my seat. How is he going to finally pull this off? I asked myself.
Slowly, things came back down with an edgy but less intense section that made me think of Stravinsky’s “Dance of Youths and Maidens” from “The Rite of Spring.”
Throughout the entire performance, Mr. Zivkoviæ’s energy and his own enjoyment of the concerto told his audience that we were heading to a positive ending. Concerto No. 2 finished with a nonverbal happy ending. Almost.
What an emotional trip! Visceral and primeval, a story without a story. Both Mr. Zivkoviæ’s performance on the marimba and his composition were brilliant and unforgettable.
Two standing ovations produced an encore in 7/8 time, a tribute to the marimba’s Central American, Mayan Indian heritage.
After intermission, the Billings Symphony rounded out the season with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor. The piece debuted to mixed reviews in 1888 and the composer himself was never truly happy with his creation, especially the final movement.
However, I found the Tchaikovsky to be a perfect foil to the marimba concerto. I closed my eyes and listened to the lush sounds of the third movement’s waltz, imagining beautiful women in flowing gowns, men in stark black evening wear, swirling beneath crystal chandeliers. The ending strains of the fourth movement spoke to me of optimism and victory, a world that came to an end at Sarajevo on July 28, 1914.
All in all, the concert was a dramatic ending to season 2011-12.