Sound cuts through the McAllen Performing Arts Center with almost supernatural precision, bouncing off walls built for music, majesty and magnificence.
The auditorium serves as the main instrument in the sound of the Valley Symphony Orchestra. Each curved wood panel serves a purpose: to provide pristine acoustics for the Rio Grande Valley’s top musicians and their beloved audiences.
At the center of it all is silver-haired maestro Peter Dabrowski, whose sturdy frame sways as he leads his orchestra like a five-star general – catching their attention, following every instrument and directing every note emanating.
He gestures energetically, sometimes contorting his face as he waves his wand to demonstrate accents and pitch.
To the untrained ear, the orchestra sounded absolutely superb on Thursday, but for Dabrowski, there were minor details that needed attention with less than 24 hours until the VSO’s 70th anniversary concert.
He notices every mistake, no matter how small, stopping the rehearsal and calling out specific bars of music that need minor tweaks.
The orchestra was preparing to perform three pieces of music for Friday’s concert: Italian Capriccio by Russian composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns and Bolero by French composer Maurice Ravel.
“It’s the Valley Symphony Orchestra’s 70th anniversary season this year,” VSO executive director Katy Coy said Thursday. “We play all season, but this concert is our celebration of 70 years of musical creation in the Valley.”
Each song has been carefully curated to capture the significance of the VSO’s seven decades.
According to the maestro, Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio was chosen for the challenge it represented for his orchestra.
“Tchaikovsky was a genius composer creating so many wonderful colors – inspired by his visit to Italy,” Dabrowski said. “He wrote something so beautiful, so funny, and at the same time entertaining and quite complex. Nonetheless, playing this type of orchestral choice music keeps the ensemble on its toes. This provides plenty of opportunities to really rise to the occasion.
The second piece, Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, was a looping moment for star guest soloist Daniel Saenz, a 1992 graduate of McAllen Memorial High School. He remembers sitting in the audience when he was in eighth grade and seeing the Valley Symphony Orchestra perform the same piece he would be featured on decades later.
“It’s so nice to kind of come back on the loop and play with the Valley Symphony as well,” Saenz said. “Thanks to Maestro Dabrowski for inviting me, but I think it’s been a wonderful experience. One of my first experiences with the Valley Symphony as an audience member was with this same concerto that I play (Thursday) night.
Saenz’s passion for the play was in the spotlight on Friday night. Sitting atop a cello podium just to the left of Maestro Dabrowski, Saenz sometimes closed his eyes and swayed back and forth as the music rolled through the auditorium like waves of the sea.
“The second piece, Cello Concerto by Camille Saint-Saëns, the idea was to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the orchestra,” Dabrowski said. “What better way than to bring in a cellist who 23 years ago was a member of the orchestra as a young student studying cello at McAllen. After more than 20 years, he returns as an internationally acclaimed soloist, professor of cello at Sam Houston University with a career in solo and chamber music performances as well as educational programs.
“Bringing it back and presenting it in front of our community — essentially showing the testament to the quality of music education programs at McAllen,” Dabrowski continued. ” There are no limits. If we can have more young people like him, I think that’s the idea, the inspiration for the new generations to continue to foster their musical education in the Valley.
For the final track, Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, percussionist Philip Johnson takes center stage and plays the same repetitive cadence on a snare drum that will carry the song in its entirety.
“The third piece – it’s a centerpiece for the orchestra,” Dabrowski said. “It features so many different soloists in the orchestra. I’m very proud of all the musicians tonight. They delivered spectacular performances. It’s Revel, Boléro, it’s like the culmination of the 70s. It may not have started so strong, but today it was strong. That was the plan.
Bolero, with its rhythmic beat and driving slow crescendo – each section taking on some form of the melody. The song progresses slowly, adding more and more like a long bus ride gaining more passengers as it travels to the triumphant finale.
At the end, the audience erupted in applause, rewarding the orchestra with a standing ovation before leaving the auditorium for the PAC lobby for a champagne toast with Maestro Dabrowski.
“I am very grateful that we are in a community that supports live performances by the symphony orchestra, and has been for 70 years,” Dabrowski said after Friday’s performance. “I am honored and proud of the trust of the community, musicians, board members for allowing me to celebrate with them today. It is a testimony to the quality of this community with artistic ambition and recognition of the arts.
The next performance will take place on April 29 at 8 p.m. at the McAllen Performing Arts Center, with The Damnation of Faust, Hungarian March by Hector Berlioz; Rhapsody on a Theme from Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninoff (Tanya Gabrielian, piano) and Star Wars by John Williams.
Tickets can be purchased at valleyorchestra.org.
To see more, check out Monitor photojournalist Delcia Lopez’s full photo gallery here:
Photo gallery: 70th anniversary of the Orchester symphonique de la Vallée