Why I adore the Austin Symphony

Peter Bay and the Long Center have transformed the city’s orchestra founded in 1911.


When this reporter arrived during the 1980s, the Austin Symphony was OK. It has aged well.

For a long time, the Austin Symphony was missing two crucial ingredients: Peter Bay and the Long Center.

When this reporter arrived in town during the 1980s, the Austin Symphony was OK.

Fine artists. Respectable programs. Perhaps too much emphasis on visiting marquee soloists, but that was what the group’s leaders felt sold tickets.

It was missing two crucial ingredients: Peter Bay and the Long Center.

After a season-long audition process, Bay became music director and conductor in 1998. Instantly, the sun came out from behind the musical clouds. Young, friendly and charismatic, Bay was a perfect fit for Austin. He raised standards and — carefully at first, given the group’s deep-seated traditionalism — expanded the programming. He has been the symphony’s top attraction ever since.

Trouble was, the ensemble still played at UT’s Bass Concert Hall, an excellent place for many types of performance, but not this group’s best friend. The artists struggled to overcome its vast arid volumes. (Those acoustical conditions have since been adjusted.)

In 2008, the symphony moved over to the Long Center, a remake of the 1959 Palmer Auditorium. No group benefited more from this new anchor for the arts than the city’s orchestra. Warm, intimate and embracing, the center’s Dell Hall made all the difference in redefining the symphony’s now-expanded range of sounds.

I was reminded of this evolution during the past three weeks when I heard the symphony three times. The group’s first ever attempt at Gustav Mahler’s epic Symphony No. 6 was spun into 80 uninterrupted minutes of sonic gold. Bay did not shy away from the more modern elements in this piece, which is still somewhat moored in the Romantic era. It was exhausting — in a good way — just to listen to it. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to conduct or play it.

The next week, the symphony sounded, correctly, more modest while playing Wolfgang Mozart in tandem with Ballet Austin’s merry and bright “The Magic Flute.” This time, Bay’s job was to keep the dancing afloat without overwhelming the night with music, and also to help us forget we were not hearing the human voices from the operatic version. The artists on the stage and in the pit collaborated as if part of one happy Mozartian family.

On the third week, the symphony returned to a mixed bill, this time of Aaron Copland, John Corigliano and Antonin Dvorák. The theme appeared to be patriotism or perhaps nationalism, or something along those lines, but not just of the American kind, since Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8, expertly rendered, sounded quite European — in fact, Bohemian. The two highlights turned out to be the Copland numbers, “Lincoln Portrait” and the Clarinet Concerto, the first with rousing narration by Gloria Quinlan, the second with an astounding solo from the symphony’s principal clarinetist, Stephen Gerko.

I am glad I lived in Austin during the 1980s and ’90s. But some things just get better with age. The Austin Symphony is one of them.

Dell Seton Medical Center Big Reveal

Have I mistakenly entered a luxury hotel? That is the first impression one receives in the ground-level guest areas of the new Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas.

For the Big Reveal at the $300 million teaching, charity and research hospital, which goes fully operational in May, numerous top citizens sipped bubbly, nibbled on delectables, and then set those aside to tour the seven-floor state-of-the-science facility that will take the place of University Medical Center Brackenridge.

Fortuitously, among our first contacts in the comfy cafe was Pete Winstead, the Austin power broker who led the charge to raise $50 million for the hospital, along with his charming wife, Tomi Winstead. By the way, as State Sen. Kirk Watson, author of the 10-point regional health plan that includes this new medical center, pointed out: No taxpayer money was spent on the facility. Jesus Garza, retiring CEO of Seton Healthcare Family, and Christann Vasquez, president and CEO of the medical center, were on hand to salute the sleek new building, filled with natural light and brightened with fine art.

This whole series of medical structures along Waller Creek is so much more pleasing than the old Brack complex and the blocky government buildings that back up against it. But it is how the hospital works that keeps one transfixed. Most impressive are wonders such as a hybrid cath lab and operating room, and a design that will facilitate care of critically ill patients.

Too much spent on the hotel look? Vasquez explains that they chose less expensive materials for the backside and inside of the place, but they wanted people to feel relaxed and at home during traumatic times. And after all, Dallas spent $1 billion on its charity hospital redo, and San Antonio $500 million.

So Austin’s $300 million looks like a bargain.

Tailwaggers for Austin Pets Alive

As promised, the Tailwaggers “non-gala” or “neo-gala” for Austin Pets Alive at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum was gloriously liberating. A perfect April evening. Unhurried strolls through the lovely gardens to find stations with drinks, animal welfare info or pledge options.

Almost every top social in town — thanks to chair Mary Herr Tally and her team — was present, along with young couples whom we had never met before. Plus some pets.

The program was short. The Big Band music was romantic. An errant buffet line put the only crimp in the evening, although once self-served, the fresh, healthy food was excellent. I won’t even try to list the social movers and shakers who attended, because the list would go on into next week.

We have another signature Austin event on our hands.

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