Monday, February 3, 2014

Review: Richmond Symphony

Mei-Ann Chen conducting
with George Li, piano
Feb. 1, Richmond CenterStage

Standing ovations are almost de rigueur at classical concerts these days, but still can be startling and exhilarating experiences. You just have to distinguish between routine, polite ones and genuine, spontaneous ones. For future reference, the response to George Li at the end of the Grieg Piano Concerto was what a genuine ovation looks and sounds like.

Much of the audience leaped to its feet, loudly applauding, in many cases shouting and whooping as well. The happy tumult didn’t die down until Li played a first encore (Vladimir Horowitz’s Fantasy on themes from Bizet’s “Carmen”), then resumed until he played a second (Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor), which finally down-shifted the applause to highly appreciative.

Li, an 18-year-old Bostonian, is one of the proliferating number of young piano virtuosos who boast both knockout technique and a level of musicality normally heard from more mature artists. It took a while for the latter to manifest itself in his performance of the Grieg.

He hit the opening chords and stated the big theme of the first movement almost as if pounding an anvil. His tone remained ringingly bright throughout the concerto, but with frequent shading of color and flexibility in tempo – more lyrical and poetical, that is.

The Chopin encore found Li at his most poetic and tonally nuanced – seemingly a different performer and instrument from those heard at the beginning of the Grieg.

The pianist had a forceful and expressive partner in guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the Memphis Symphony and Chicago Sinfonietta. In the Grieg, Chen crafted sonorously atmospheric, warmly lyrical orchestral playing.

Her treatment of Schumann’s Second Symphony was brisk and alert, effectively centering the listener’s attention on the second, scherzo movement, with its speedy crosscurrents of brilliant string and wind scoring. The slow movement, marked adagio expressivo, was paced more like an andante and plumbed few expressive depths. The conductor mustered a collective triumphant outcry for the symphony’s finale.

Chen and the orchestra’s strings opened the program with Osvaldo Golijov’s orchestral version of “Last Round,” a piece that incorporates the Argentinian-born composer’s formative influences: East European Jewish music (Golijov’s parents were émigrés), Stravinsky-cum-Hindemith neoclassicism and the “new tango” style of Argentine master Astor Piazzolla.

Unusually, the symphony’s violinists and violists played standing, with first and second violins to the left and right of the conductor. This may have helped energize the players – several seemed on the verge of dancing in the fast opening section; and it certainly didn’t detract from tone production in the longer lentissimo that followed. I’ve rarely heard lusher sound from these fiddlers.