BSO’s Concert of ‘Deathly Classics’ Blows Roof Off Collins Center

The Bangor Symphony Orchestra opened its 122nd season Sunday afternoon with a concert that blew the roof off the Collins Center for the Arts and raised the bar for the musicians a good five to 10 feet.

The concert was marketed as featuring “deathly classics” because of its proximity to Halloween and the pieces’ dark themes. That moniker belies the complexity of the music, the passion in which it’s rooted and it’s transformative power.

Music Director and Conductor Lucas Richman’s programming sometimes has felt like a hodgepodge of music gathered like a bouquet of flowers around a particular soloist. The secondary pieces, like an outer ring of buds, complement but don’t look or smell better than the central blossom.

Sunday’s concert was decidedly different. Richman piled Franz Liszt’s “Totentanz” on top of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” then topped the concert off with Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.”

To call the result big and bold or powerful and moving does not do it justice. It was gigantic in its sweep and scope and sound and the BSO’s executed it perfectly.

Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” was considered groundbreaking when it was premiered in 1832.

“Berlioz ingeniously utilizes unconventional and vivid orchestration, unexpected pauses, abrupt dynamic changes, an expanded five-movement structure, and a grotesque storyline to create what is widely hailed as the first great romantic symphony,” Laura Artesani wrote in the program notes. Antesani is an associate professor at the University of Maine and the music education coordinator.

The composer included nearly every available instrument in his complex score. The orchestra not only illuminated the composer’s broad thematic strokes, but also highlighted the more delicate sections especially in the second movement that calls for two harpists. The BSO’s principal harpist Mo Nichols was joined onstage in front of the orchestra by guest harpist Piper Runnion-Bareford. Together, they brought Berlioz’s glamorous vision of a ball to life.

The third movement, titled “Scene in the Countryside,” featured oboists Katie Hardy, who was in the balcony, and Ben Fox in the orchestra. The movement features the oboes as shepherds lobbing an evocative melody back and forth. The musicians transported the audience to a pastoral hillside in that movement, then, marched it to a scaffold in the fourth and, finally, into a hallucinogenic dream of a witches’ sabbath in the fifth. It was a rich, deep, dark and vibrant musical journey.

“Symphonie Fantastique” is a challenge to any orchestra that tackles it. It feels momentous to concertgoers, like the orchestra is collectively climbing Mount Katahdin. The BSO conquered it with grace, beauty and a lot of hard work.

Liszt’s “Totentanz,” which means “Dance of Death,” was inspired by a 14th-century fresco titled the composer saw in 1838, according to the program notes.

“Created by the Florentine artist Andrea Orcagna, the fresco is titled ‘The Triumph of Death,’” Artesani wrote. “In this ghoulish scene, the female figure of death carries a scythe as she swoops toward her victims. Some souls are seen ascending to heaven, while others are being dragged down to hell. A pile of corpses and open graves with decomposed bodies add to the ghastly atmosphere.”

Inspired by that, Liszt wrote “Totentanz,” sometimes referred to as his third piano concerto, more than a decade after seeing it. Guest soloist William Wolfram and the orchestra brought vibrantly to life Liszt’s memory of the piece. Wolfram’s fingers appeared to fly across the keys. As the final note sounded, the audience rose to its feet, some of its members shouting, “Bravo,” calling Wolfram back to the stage three times before the house lights were brought up signaling intermission.

Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” famously and frighteningly illustrated in Walt Disney’s 1940 animated classic “Fantasia,” was the perfect introduction to Sunday afternoon’s ghoulish program that delighted the audience even as it brought to life the composer’s spirits of darkness.

Since taking the baton in 2010, Richman has steadily expanded the orchestra’s repertoire and challenged its musicians with complex and demanding compositions. The expertise and passion with which the BSO played Sunday proved the musicians can meet the maestro’s musical challenges and thrill an audience.