The Boise Philharmonic’s music director search continued with a nearly pyrotechnic performance under the baton of finalist Michelle Merrill. The tall Texan brought with her an incredibly powerful, big program punctuated by the epic Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony.
She showed complete mastery on the podium Saturday at the Phil’s Morrison Center performance.
Merrill, who is an assistant conductor at the Detroit Symphony, is the second candidate (and the only woman) trying out for the position vacated by Robert Franz after eight years leading the orchestra. Aram Demirjian led off the season earlier in October with a dazzling concert that set the bar incredibly high. Merrill easily matched it. Where Demirjian sizzled, Merrill soared.
If this is an indication, it’s going to be a very difficult decision.
One of the most dramatic differences in the quality of the performance came from her reconfiguring of the orchestra sections on stage. She moved the brass from center back to back audience right, moved and elevated Bill Shaltis and his timpani upstage near center next to the percussion and pushed the entire orchestra farther upstage to take better advantage of the proscenium stage’s acoustics.
The result was amazing. It amplified and deepened the sound and popped it off the stage. The orchestra sounded bigger than its actual numbers.
The bold opening of Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival Overture” washed over the audience as a wake-up call, filled with trilling violins, resonant horns and a rich solo from oboist Peter Stempe. From there the orchestration softened into romantic melodies that ripened into rounded tones and set the mood for the evening.
Next up, Merrill and violin soloist Caroline Goulding crafted a blazing interpretation of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. This was Goulding’s third time playing with the Boise Phil. A true prodigy, Goulding first came to Boise in 2010 when she was 17. Now 23, she again showed her virtuosity, attacking the piece with precise technique and soulful depth.
Though she could have taken more time with the second movement’s emotional center, the cherubic powerhouse offered a breathtaking sincerity in her approach and blended seamlessly with the orchestra. Merrill kept the pace brisk and vibrant as it resolved into a sparkling rondo.
Goulding also delighted the audience with Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 as her encore.
As good as the first part of the program was, Merrill saved the best for last. Her finale, Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4, also known as the “Fate Symphony,” filled the second half of the evening with a vibrant interpretation of its epic themes.
Its opening of dramatic brass calls melted effortlessly into soft strains of sadness and tumultuous foreboding. Merrill balanced the orchestra and made the most of every musician on the stage. Again, the brass and woodwind, which get a workout in this symphony, popped as they provided a rich overlay.
The third movement, which featured the string section plucking their instruments, was pure delight. And the fourth movement’s gargantuan motifs of finding joy in the world despite the oppression of one’s “fate” in the world was truly triumphant. It brought the audience to its feet and left them bouncing out of the hall.
Throughout the piece Merrill danced between lilt and bombast, individual and ensemble musicianship. And the musicians responded with their A game.
Merrill makes a charming and engaging presence on stage. She directed the orchestra with precise and graceful movements that were a delight to watch. With a long program, she kept her conversation with the audience short and focused on the program. Musically, she put it all out there, raising the bar yet again.
This is going to be a difficult decision. So far we’ve been lucky enough to see and hear two of our nation’s best up-and-coming conductors work with the Boise Philharmonic — and there are more to come.