The mighty Austin Symphony comes to save the day

Now that the Austin Symphony has consummated Part 3 of its “Mighty Russians” series, it has completely shed its former reputation for underplaying big music. Almost to a fault.

Music director Peter Bay opened the formal part of the concert on Saturday with the bright and bold “Carnaval Overture” by Alexander Glazunov. Dismissed by some critics in the 20th century as merely “academic” — in other words, glib, predictable, conservative — Glazunov is also capable of great orchestral virtuosity. This rousing performance — a taste of what was to come at the Long Center for the Performing Arts — made me want to dive right into his eight completed symphonies.

Lise de la Salle. Contribute by Marco Borggreve

Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto No. 1 is all about the soloist, but the ensemble is given plenty of opportunity to introduce and expand on the piece’s gorgeous themes and variations. French pianist Lise de la Salle did not shy away from the famous concerto’s showiness. Compact and contained when off the bench, in performance, she swayed and nodded, extended her arcing arms, attacked the keyboard like an avenging angel, then caressed it like tender companion.

At times, de la Salle’s hands appeared to blur over the complicated finger work. (“I can’t imagine what the score looks like,” said a friend during intermission.) Besides technical skill and fearlessness, she added some interpretive touches, such as startling hesitations and a certain playfulness with the composer’s unconventional rhythms. These seemed to bleed right into her delicately rendered encore selection: a Debussy Prelude.

“How are they going to top that?” said the stranger seated next to me after intermission.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s “Manfred Symphony” is all over the place. Based on the poem by Lord Byron, it is at times unabashedly pictorial, at other times outright theatrical, always Gothic and so varied that a listener sometimes gets tangled in its taiga of melodies.

This is where we get to part about Austin Symphony’s plenteous sound. Remember back at Bass Concert Hall prior to 2008? “Manfred” would have shrunken to “Boyfred.” (Sorry.) Nowadays, the orchestra’s power rises, if not quite to the level of a major American ensemble, quite close, especially with the additional brass.

At times, it went right up to the point of excess. I felt a little pummeled. But that’s what “Manfred” calls for and the Austin Symphony delivered mightily.