By Daniel Buckwalter

I have sometimes wondered why the Eugene Symphony Orchestra doesn’t make a bigger splash on the season’s opening night.

There’s energy to this anticipated affair, and it’s great to see familiar and new faces inside the Silva Concert Hall at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts to start another season. It could be marked somehow with some pageantry, I think, though I wouldn’t pretend to know what that could be.

Then the music begins — soft and luxurious, triumphant and stern — and the need for pageantry dissolves. It is replaced by the wondrous beauty of scores by Sergei Rachmaninov and Sergei Prokofiev as well as Michael Djupstrom, this season’s First Symphony Project composer.

It is the music from the orchestra, under the direction of Francesco Lecce-Chong, that a nearly full house came to hear Sept. 21. The music itself says everything, as it should.
And this year’s season-opening concert came with the warmth of friendship.

Lecce-Chong, Djupstrom and guest pianist Claire Huangci met and became friends at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and their closeness showed throughout the evening.

Djupstrom led off with remarks on just the second-ever performance of From the Northern Wilds, a 10-minute tribute to the Missouri River that helped build communities throughout the Rocky Mountain and Upper Midwest regions of the country and was commissioned in 2019 by the Great Falls Symphony in Montana.

This season, the Eugene Symphony will unveil the world premiere of Djupstrom’s first-ever symphony on Feb. 1, 2024, as part of the First Symphony Project.

From the Northern Wilds was followed by a delightful and often playful performance on the piano by Huangci in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody On A Theme of Paganini.

The nearly 30-minute piece allowed Huangci to show the full range of her talents to the Silva Concert Hall audience. From the delicate opening to the often dramatic passages, Huangci mimicked a full range of emotions from the bench as well, and the audience soaked up this performance and gave her a standing ovation.

Yet she wasn’t done.

It was the encore performance — Rachmaninov’s Waltz in A for Six Hands, joined by Lecce-Chong and Djupstrom — that brought the audience to its feet for good. The smiles and the warmth among the three friends was clearly evident. They were having fun playing, and the audience was having fun watching them cross arms while listening to their pitch-perfect performance.

After intermission came Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, and if there was almost bouncy fun in the first half of the program, Prokofiev’s piece, composed in 1944, offered a stark contrast.

It follows the soft, then stern and and later triumphant arc of the Stalinist-era Soviet Union during the hellacious days of World War II. It is an interesting, if exhaustive, 45-minute piece of art to explore, and it was played by Eugene Symphony with precision that earned the standing ovation it received from the audience.

It’s OK, after all, that the Eugene Symphony dispenses with pageantry on opening night. It’s the music that sells, and given the performance on Sept. 21, it’s the music that pays.

It’s good to have the Eugene Symphony Orchestra back for its 2023-24 season.

Three friends gathered to open the Eugene Symphony’s 2023-24 season; left to right, Claire Huangci, Francesco Lecce-Chong, and Michael Djupstrom; photo courtesy of Amanda L. Smith Photography