Saturday, October 11th, 2008 opened the Augusta Symphony's 2008 season.I'll not go into much depth about the performance of the symphony per se: they were good, but not at the top of their game, in part due to the fact that they were working with a guest conductor — Susan Haig — candidating to take over as Donald Portnoy retires.
The soloist, however, was incredible. Leonard Rowe, a young baritone, took on the well-known and much-butchered "Prologue" from I Pagliacci as his opening number. I was worried that the generally-staid ASO venue would result in a "straight" performance of the piece; my worries were unfounded, though, as the stage-right house door opened and Mr. Rowe's head poked out to see the audience. From this auspicious beginning, his rendition of the "Prologue" far outshone the majority of its performances.
His next piece was "Non piu andrai" from Le Nozze di Figaro. Again, a fairly standard piece (Augusta audiences seem to expect most concerts to be made up of "fairly standard pieces"), but a good one; and again, he did very well by it.
His coup de grâce thus far, though, was "Cortigiani" (Rigoletto). A full operatic performance — sans only period costume — made him an incredibly believable Rigoletto. Yes, it was still the middle of the concert, but this piece deserved the standing ovation it drew from the crowd.
I feel I've not done the previous pieces justice in my brief descriptions. I can only excuse myself by saying "the best is yet to come". Rarely (if ever) have I heard a concert where the encore blew the entirety of the show completely out of the water.
Augusta crowds give standing ovations for nearly every performance. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a show here — from either side of the footlights — that didn't receive one. When the orchestra finished their final number, the crowd (perhaps bowing to ideas of Southern gentility and politesse) rose. I and most of the people I was with did not. Their performance was good, but that was it.
I kept watching that stage-right door.
Finally, I was rewarded. Ms. Haig exited, and re-entered, followed shortly by Mr. Rowe.
I stood. Everyone I could see that had not been standing for the orchestra was driven to their feet for Mr. Rowe.
He spoke something to Ms. Haig, and somehow she managed to quiet the applause with promise of an encore.
And the orchestra began with the opening chords of "Old Man River".
I don't know that I can explain his performance, but for two things. First, the entire audience was transfixed, and fully invested in the music to a degree they hadn't been the rest of the evening. Second, if I were to see a poster reading, "Leonard Rowe performs 'Old Man River', tickets $25", I would pay, and I would go.
It was worth the price of admission all on its own.