Welcoming the large crowd filling FHSU’s Beach/Schmidt Performing Arts Center, Cathy Drabkin described Saturday’s Hays Symphony Orchestra Valentine concert as “like a great big box of chocolates.” And it was. The orchestra performed a varied program that was sometimes sweet, sometimes hot, and now and then deliciously nutty.

The orchestra and Brad Dawson, on flugelhorn, made the audience sigh with delight at their performance of Frank Mantooth’s arrangement of Brodzsky and Cahn’s 1950’s hit, “I’ll Never Stop Loving You.” Then, as a complete change of pace, Dawson conducted Percy Grainger’s “Colonial Song,” which Grainger hoped would express the “patiently yearning, inactive sentimental wistfulness” of colonists in countries not their own (program note). Dawson closed his part of the program conducting “A Medley for Orchestra,” several of Duke Ellington’s greatest hits arranged by Calvin Custer. The heat of the beat intensified steadily until we all felt like jumping up and dancing to “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

Ellington is a tough act to follow, but the orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Cline, continued to charm us all with eight of Edward Elgar’s 14 “Variations on an Original Theme,” better known as “The Enigma Variations.” The story is, Elgar was improvising at the piano after a hard day, and his wife admired the tune he was playing. This inspired him to compose variations that would reflect the characters of friends and acquaintances, whose initials serve as the title of each variation. The variations are, in themselves, like a box of chocolates. Some are short and nutty, like peanut brittle, others, like “Nimrod,” are longer and more complex, like caramel. The reason they are called the “Enigma Variations” is no one knows what tune serves as their basis — sort of like fruitcake.

Finally, out came guest conductor Zhang Yue of Sias University in China. Yue does not speak much English, but, as he said, “Music is world language. That’s all the talking.” With that, he and the orchestra performed “The Peony Flowers Overture” by Liu Qi. This music is so sensuously delicious that I, at least, had a double synaesthetic experience. I closed my eyes and saw pink peonies opening and tasted birthday cake covered in white icing with pink rosettes.

After changing into a red jacket, Yue conducted a second piece, Wang Meng’s “The Soldiers Set off to the War,” a highly percussive piece in quick tempo. According to the music, the soldiers seemed inexperienced — the march was jolly and energetic. Yue himself was clearly having a fine time, almost dancing on the podium.

In short, the orchestra, all three conductors and the music concocted an unforgettable, totally crowd-pleasing valentine for everyone present. And we rewarded them with standing applause of long duration.

The evening ended in a reception with heart-shaped cookies iced in pink with little rosettes, courtesy of Insurance Planning. Audience and musicians lingered quite awhile despite the cold and snowy weather.

All are invited to the next event in the FHSU International Piano Series, the All-American recital of Shannon Sadler, at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Beach/Schmidt.

Ruth Firestone is a frequent contributor to The Hays Daily News.