I attended the first three CSO concerts of the season. Each featured a concerto: Lang Lang playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1, Martin Frost playing Mozart’s clarinet concerto, and Emanuel Ax playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto #2.
The rock star of the bunch was clearly Lang Lang, who played to a packed house for this all Beethoven affair. He was also the biggest showboat: for example, leaning back away from the keyboard to admire the elegance of his right hand as it beautifully executed an intricately ornamented passage. Since he did indeed play it with charm and grace, I am willing to indulge him. He deserves his notoriety, and the enthusiastic applause he received.
This was in contrast to the understated, charming performance of the Chopin by Emanuel Ax. Being fully engaged in the music making, Ax had no time for grand, superfluous gestures. Whenever the piano was by itself, we had the divine intimacy of Chopin, whose writing for piano is unsurpassed. Unfortunately, Chopin’s orchestration is not so masterful. I like the description by Berlioz quoted in the program notes: “[when they] play tutti, they cannot be heard, and one is tempted to say to them ‘Why don’t you play, for heavens sake!’ And when they accompany the piano, they only interfere with it so that the listener wants to cry out to them: ‘Be quiet, you bunglers, you are in the way!’.” Regardless, Emanuel Ax gave a beautiful performance, faithful to the spirit of composer.
Both pianists played, for encores, pieces that I had learned at one time. Lang Lang played the “Alla Turca” finale of Mozart’s A Major Sonata, at a blazing speed. He transformed this delightful, innocent rondo it into a technical showpiece, which I suppose is appropriate for an encore after a concerto. It struck me as incredibly fast. Emanuel Ax played a Chopin waltz in A minor (Op. 34 no 2). It was very understated for an encore, not technically brilliant at all, merely intimate and sublime. It struck me as incredibly beautiful.
The soloist that I enjoyed the most was Martin Frost. He played the Mozart concerto very elegantly, fully expressing the character of the music. We could see the influence of his ballet training in his demeanor on stage, but he never drew attention to himself at expense of the music. For an encore, he played a showpiece, “Let’s Be Happy”, written for him by his brother. It featured an improvised introduction which included some quotations from Stravinsky, some extended techniques, some traditional Klezmer, and lots of really fast notes. Though lightly scored, each section of the strings got to share the spotlight, with extended passages where they were the ones playing really fast. I usually don’t enjoy listening to people show off their dazzling technique, but this piece was pure fun. What a delight!
All three concerts were directed by Louis Langrée. The first included the Beethoven Seventh Symphony, which I had heard him direct before he was named Music Director. His tempi are consistently brisk, but the orchestra is good enough to play with expression and elegance even at that speed. He takes the second movement too fast for my taste, but it is marked Allegretto, so his tempo is certainly justified. Langrée’s Beethoven does not have the weighty, Germanic scowl of some the famous portraits; this Beethoven is lively, alternately graceful or thrilling, but never stodgy.
The second concert featured John Adams’s Harmonielehre (Harmony Lesson), a large, complex showcase for the orchestra. I am a fan of Adams, and the orchestra played this difficult work magnificently. The intricate masses of sound were beautifully balanced, and I was swept away by the large scale momentum of the piece.
Though this concert was not so well attended, the audience contained a number of people who were unfamiliar with the protocol: they clapped between movements. This is a good thing: Langrée is succeeding in reaching out to a new audience.
The third concert ended with Debussy’s La Mer. You might expect Langrée to be most at home with this French masterpiece, but here, I was a little disappointed, especially with the first movement. It just didn’t seem to flow. The second movement, “Play of the Waves”, was better. Langrée seems more comfortable with light and fast. However, Debussy’s sea is sometimes menacing, and this sense of foreboding was missing.
I will not attend all the concerts in the season, and I certainly don’t expect to write about all the ones I manage to hear. There are only so many ways that I can rhapsodize about the magnificent brass, the nimble winds, the precise percussion or the sumptuous strings. Occasionally I will notice an imperfection, such as a clam from the horns, but when surrounded by so much spectacular beauty, it just reminds me that these are humans. I enjoy being fully engaged in the live experience, listening to these masters of their craft. It a privilege to be have such a fine orchestra in our town.