From the first moment guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen stepped onto the stage of the Tennessee Theatre last week for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s February concerts, one sensed it would be a memorable evening. Chen rushed energetically to the podium, beaming a huge smile and projecting a genuine delight to be there. By the end of the evening, the audience and orchestra had demonstrated that the delight was mutual.
With hardly a pause, Chen launched into Mikhail Glinka’s bright and ebullient Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila with an attention-getting tempo and crispness of attack. Along with that conductorial precision, Chen was also precise in her musical point of view throughout the evening. A demonstratively supportive leader, she allowed the ebb and flow of dynamics to breathe, yet augmented that support with clearly visible cuing of solos and instrumental sections.
Having left the audience breathless, Chen reminded the audience of the realities of classical music in 2017: “It takes a village to raise an orchestra,” she said.
In the meantime, the Steinway grand piano had risen from the depths of the orchestra pit. Chen was then joined by the soloist for the evening, the 28-year-old French pianist Lise de la Salle. Although Chen described her as a “rising international star,” de la Salle had been something of a child prodigy, making a concert debut at age 13. In truth, de la Salle plays with the natural fluency of someone who has been innately comfortable with the piano from an early age.
De la Salle was on hand for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, a work that has the deceptively complex influence of Mozart and Haydn but also Beethoven’s own blossoming genius. De la Salle sculpted the passages of the opening Allegro con brio movement and its cadenzas with remarkably fluid ease, careening through Beethoven’s intriguing key variations. Oddly, the slow Largo was less attention-grabbing—and emotional—than it should have been, the gorgeous delicacy rarely emerging from the otherwise precisely played passages. On the other hand, Gary Sperl gave the movement’s clarinet solos riveting substance.
De la Salle recovered the audience’s attention with the Finale movement’s humorous melodic twists and rowdy, dance-like rapidity. The twists and turns of the final passage are Beethoven at his most clever and inventive.
Chen opened the second half of the concert with a work new to most listeners, but really not new at all: Florence Price’s 1953 jewel Dances in the Canebrakes, as orchestrated by William Grant Still. Consisting of three sections—“Nimble Feet,” “Tropical Noon,” and “Silk Hat and Walking Cane”—the work owes its delightful atmosphere and addictive rhythmical flights to Price’s original piano work and its enticing instrumental color to Still’s orchestration. Price is best known for her 1933 Symphony in E Minor, the first orchestral work by a female African-American composer performed by a major American orchestra.
The evening’s diverse program took yet another turn with the concluding work: Igor Stravinsky’s 1919 Suite from The Firebird, music drawn from the composer’s first ballet collaboration with the Ballet Russes in Paris. It was in this magical, fairy-story work that one recognized Chen’s ability to plumb the depths of an orchestra’s potential and inspire joy and energetic performance from the players. However, Chen’s work for the evening continued well beyond that last vibrant passage, which intensifies into magnificent triumph. The maestro insisted on ovations for every soloist and section. Perhaps we have become too stingy; inspired playing deserves encouragement. The parking lot will still be there.
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