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Philharmonic covers all bases with ‘eclectic’ offering

"Eclectic" is a useful word. It’s just vague enough to cover an indiscriminate assortment of unrelated objects, which describes the program the Las Vegas Philharmonic offered Saturday.

Offerings ran from a Mozart overture to a Ravel chestnut separated by a couple of true masterworks. Guest conductor Alastair Willis led off with the overture to Mozart’s "Don Giovanni."

In a break with custom the overture uses no theme from the opera but seems to portray the almost superhuman restlessness, and ruthlessness, of the lecherous Don Juan.

In one of the most terrifying moments in all opera the Don is dropped through the portal of Hell by a stone statue avenging its daughter, a victim of the predator Don. But even this remarkable scene is not represented in the overture.

In Saturday’s performance this leadoff piece demonstrated some ragged playing as well as balance problems with woodwinds, for example, occasionally overpowering the strings. In all, a rather uninspired rendition.

In a dramatic change of pace there followed violinist Elena Urioste as soloist in Jean Sibelius’ "Violin Concerto in D minor."

This was the annual "Rising Star" concert, but it may be inaccurate to dub Urioste a rising star since she has already arrived at stardom. She has appeared with the finest orchestras both here and abroad, and there is little doubt her career will endure and grow.

Her technique is virtually flawless and seemingly effortless, even when tackling devilishly difficult passages.

Her approach in the first movement was crisp and commanding.

The slow second movement began with lustrous beauty which carried throughout. Its closing theme was intimate and delicate and enveloped the listener in its delicacy.

The artist’s deeply expressive range was displayed throughout, but never more than in the poignant final movement.

Talent aside, it doesn’t hurt that she is ethereally beautiful.

After intermission, Willis presented a brief yet helpful analysis of the work to follow, Richard Strauss’ tone poem "Death and Transfiguration."

The work depicts a man on his deathbed, racked by pain, reflecting on his past life and despondent of the fact he never attained the ideal he pursued.

As death occurs and his soul leaves his body he attains perfection in its most glorious form – profound thoughts from a 24-year-old composer who was never to lose his fascination with death.

It is not unusual for a performance to reflect all the right notes at the right time yet not produce the fire, the inner drive that sets it apart; it happens more often than not.

It took a brief solo passage from concertmaster DeAnn Letourneau to ignite the flame that prevailed for the closing minutes of the work, and the audience was swept along in its own kind of transfiguration.

The evening ended with Maurice Ravel’s "Bolero," a work that has been the object of numerous efforts to define it as more than it is: a masterfully orchestrated and mildly exciting piece. Ravel himself described it as "… one very long gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts and practically no plan." Enough said.

We were treated to "Bolero" in a more interesting presentation only a couple of seasons ago. Crowd pleaser that it is, surely it doesn’t merit such repetition.

Willis is the orchestra’s fifth guest conductor of the season as it pursues its search for a new music director.

He conducts without a baton, relying on his long (but often splayed) fingers to express his wishes to the players.

He has held an assortment of assistant, associate and guest conductor positions and is now music director of the Illinois Symphony based in Springfield.

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