Mackenzie Melemed

Pianist Mackenzie Melemed was the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra guest artist at "Symphonie Fantastique: A Night of Taunts and Terrors," Saturday at the Orpheum Theatre.

The only thing missing from Mackenzie Melemed’s performance with the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra Saturday night was a candelabrum.

Rolling across the piano on Franz Liszt’s “Totentanz,” the 2017 Iowa Piano Competition winner showed a variety of playing techniques, wowing the audience with such effective movements he was as much a showman as he was a superb musician.

Setting the piece’s dark tone immediately, he gave the orchestra a wonderful start, then took over like the phantom of the Orpheum. Playing with one finger, a fist and, at one point the palm of his hand (would this be the, um, palm, er, method?), he dazzled in ways we didn’t see last spring. To witness an artist’s growth is just one of the joys of the regional piano contest.

Melemed offered an encore, too, (that had its own charms) and helped enhance the evening’s mood.

Called “Symphonie Fantastique, a night of taunts and terrors,” the Halloween-themed show opened with a parade of witches (who encouraged others to take off their hats during the performance), then slid into Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” Part of Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” (which will be presented next month), it had all those ominous tones that make you think of the devil rising. Stephanie Kocher stood out on piccolo and the strings had moments that were heavenly – despite the piece’s tone.

A theme – the Dies Irae – ran through both featured pieces and the second act extravaganza, Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14.”

A sprawling composition, “Fantastique” tells the story of a musician’s drug-induced dreams. They take him from one emotion to another, one setting go another. Concluding with the Witches’ Sabbath, it has plenty of spooky chords and moments to appropriately carry the night’s theme.

The orchestra, abetted by two harps and an army of other instruments, marched through the five parts in fine order. Had there been a place for Melemed, it’s likely he could have fit in, too.

The symphony’s theme night was a fun one (followed by tours of the “haunted” Orpheum), complete with bone-chilling drums, “Psycho”-like strings and screech or two designed to haunt.

But if it’s to be remembered for anything, it’s Melemed’s turn. Saturday’s performance showed he was definitely the right person to win the 2017 piano competition.


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