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Peter Bay's Rachmaninoff farewell fitting somehow

It was fitting that Peter Bay would choose Rachmaninoff's magnificent "Symphonic Dances, Op. 45," for his final performance as conductor of the Britt Orchestra. The formidable composition anchored the first concert Bay directed here 20 years ago.

And the piece that began the concert, Dvorak's Cello Concerto? That was on that program 20 years ago, too. This time around, it was performed with impressive depth of feeling by the guest artist, the rising young cellist Alisa Weilerstein.

To have begun his tenure at the popular summer festival with a piece (the Rachmaninoff) that's not only a great composer's final work but a musical summing up of that composer's oeuvre was perhaps an ironic choice for a young conductor. Two decades later the emotional dynamics were reversed, as if not just the composer but the conductor, too, were completing a circle.

"What a bittersweet evening," Britt Executive Director Donna Briggs said.

Actress and Rogue Valley resident Kim Novak made a rare appearance to present Bay with one of her artworks, an interpretation of the local forest and its creatures responding to a concert.

"We love playing for you," Bay said.

The pairing of the groundbreaking romantic concerto with the rather modernist (for Rachmaninoff) orchestral suite, then and now, reminds us that, whether intuitively or by design, the personable, perpetually boyish Bay always has been a canny programmer.

It was clear from the early cello bars after the clarinets introduced the theme that Weilerstein and Dvorak are a match. Which is all the more poignant in that Dvorak had resisted the idea of a cello concerto for years, convinced that the instrument had little solo potential.

The concerto is one of the supreme works in the cello repertoire, and Weilerstein, in a long purple gown, navigated the allegro with fire and lyricism as the cello conversed with the orchestra. Known as a champion of contemporary music, she was a child prodigy who made her professional debut at age 13. She's toured the world, played with the top symphony orchestras, won the Leonard Bernstein Prize and been awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."

What sets her apart is not so much her technical virtuosity — although that's clear — but the emotional, almost wild, colors of her playing. Listening to her impassioned take on the more breathless parts of the adagio, you almost got the feeling that Dvorak wrote the concerto with her in mind. By the finale, as Weilerstein seemed to draw from deep within and lose herself in wild abandon, you were pretty sure of it.

During Rachmaniinoff's lifetime — he lived until 1943 — he was adored by audiences and often panned by critics for composing big, lush melodies rooted in the romantic Russian past. "Symphonic Dances," however, mixed in modernist influences with Stravinsky-like rhythms and new harmonies. It did not have a good reception in its day but since has become wildly popular.

The sharp rhythms of the opening theme set the tone for the entire first movement. If they made you think of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "The Golden Cockerel," they're supposed to. Rachmaninoff was a huge admirer, and in the "Dances" he "quotes" others and even himself (the opening theme of his first symphony of nearly a half-century earlier, for example) like some proto-postmodernist in the wrong decade.

As the almost soporific waltz of the second movement increased in tempo and intensity until it became a manic storm, the orchestra was playing at very near the top of its form. In the final movement, the composer was "sampling" again, mixing Russian Orthodox chanting and "Dies Irae," no less, the medieval church's chant for the dead. And quoting himself, with the Alleluia theme from an earlier choral work, which led to the triumph of the ringing ending.

And then it was over, and Bay was asking the orchestra members to share his bows, and the audience wouldn't let him go. As befits an anniversary, the orchestra played a rousing "Happy Birthday."

Bay has said that after a year of focusing on his day job as conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra he'll be a frequent visitor and open to guest spots. Here's hoping. We'll not soon see his like.