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SINFONIETTA REVIEW: ‘These musicians are all solid, well-trained professionals’

The Lake Placid Sinfonietta last Sunday evening, July 17, under the direction of Stuart Malina, demonstrated how a relatively small 20-member ensemble like this one may be all you need to well demonstrate centuries worth of music by the greatest composers.

On this night, they took on a pair of giants from the early Romantic period, Schubert and Mendelssohn, and gave them their proper due. The featured soloist, pianist Sara Davis Buechner, did actually show up, unlike last week when pianist Alexander Kerr did not. He touched off a mild panic when he had to bow out at the 11th hour because of a COVID-19 issue.

With no elements of COVID-19 standing in her way, Ms. Buechner stormed onto the stage, spent a few anxious seconds adjusting the piano bench making sure she had the right distance from the pedals to stomp on them comfortably but with authority, and then injected the room full of electricity with her dazzling virtuosity on Menelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor.

As if her hands didn’t provide enough excitement with the sounds they produced, she can lend quite a visual element to the performance throwing her whole body into a huge attack as she throws her hands up high, rises off the bench some, and brings everything crashing down altogether assuring the fingers hit the right notes in the process.

Instead of the typical piano bench, maybe she should incorporate a specially programmed mechanical bull in the near future. If nothing else, she could give such YouTube stars as PewDiePie and Dude Perfect good reason to check their rearview mirrors to see who’s coming up behind them, and maybe send some complimentary tickets to John Travolta with the inscribed note, “See what you’ve started?”

Not to suggest she’s all flash and no substance because she’s successfully jumped through all the proper hoops to prove she belongs among the world’s top soloists with studies at The Juilliard School, more than enough prestigious competition awards and solid reviews in the New York Times and Washington Post.

Her energy was a timely arrival following the opening piece, “The Light of Three Mornings: Sketches of Braintree Hill” by modern composer Gwyneth Walker. This piece had some colorful tone clusters and amusingly quirky sounds one may not expect, such as a French horn sliding down a distant interval like a trombone and then sliding back up through some sort of trickery that may have involved skilled use of a rotor slide.

The softly played tone clusters and absence of a solid pulse can bring the opening measures to Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” or Grofe’s “Sunrise” to mind, but where those pieces build and ultimately lead to a full sound with a solid pulse, this one did not. In terms of dynamic range, tempo and overall energy, the ending didn’t sound much different from the beginning.

There is always a risk factor with such modern pieces. But even if they don’t exactly create an uproarious standing ovation, they’re still worth playing for a variety of good reasons. One should hope that Mr. Malina continues to include them in his programs. If nothing else, it’s just nice to know what’s out there being written lest every program just be a list of one old warhorse after another.

Warhorse or not, Schubert’s 5th Symphony proved to be a fitting closer to the evening. The orchestra, all of whom may have still been charged up full of juice from Ms. Buechner, gave a masterful performance of this work and were duly rewarded with ample applause from the audience.

To the tourists out there and especially the residents: Those who may think this organization isn’t worth your time of day just because it has the name “Lake Placid” in it are sadly mistaken. The organization is not a bunch of rusty old retired wannabes desperately trying to achieve something cool to satisfy their individual bucket lists.

These musicians are all solid, well-trained professionals from all over the world who spend the fall through the spring playing in other orchestras and then join up in Lake Placid for a nice six-week summer gig. They don’t come cheap, they’re worth every dollar, and they’re masterfully directed by Mr. Stuart Malina, himself a polished professional who knows a few things about waving a baton and is no slouch on the piano himself.

This week should be a good time to find available tickets because a lot of local residents will be fleeing the area to avoid the annual madness of Ironman weekend.

If you’ve never seen them before, what’s the worst that can happen? You might fall in love with them, and it only gets better from there.

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(The Lake Placid Sinfonietta’s Sunday Symphony Series continues at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 23 at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, a day early due to the Ironman triathlon on Sunday.)