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Fiery French Fare

Jones Hall
04/22/2010 -  & April 24, 25
Camille Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

Simon Trpceski (piano)
Houston Symphony, Kirill Karabits (conductor)

K. Karabits (© Yuri Shkoda)

Kirill Karabits is a conductor to keep an eye on. The young Ukrainian, stepping in at the last minute for Claus Peter Flor, who was stuck in Europe thanks to Eyjafjallajökull, coaxed the most thrilling performance this season out of the musicians of the Houston Symphony. Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski, making his HSO debut, played with impeccable technique and musicality, and the all-French program was a delight from start to end.

Saint-Saëns’ Second piano concerto is always a delight to hear. Like a three-star Michelin chef baking the perfect soufflé, the pianist must have an acuminous technique to make the extremely complex passagework sound light as air. Simon Trpceski accomplished this in spades. The audience was immediately awash with truly exquisite playing, from gossamer trills to thunderous quadruple octave passagework to poetically voiced and phrased lyricism. The acrobatics of the piece are nonstop, and the brisker-than-usual tempo for the finale was handled expertly. Karabits and the orchestra complemented Trpceski’s pianism with rhythmically secure and equally nimble playing. The performance as a whole sparkled and thrilled, with extra emphasis on the many sudden dynamic and textural contrasts in the piece. The chorale-like passage near the end of the finale was especially well phrased by the orchestra. With playing this fine, no interpretive gimmickry was necessary. A much-deserved standing ovation followed the performance, and one hopes that Trpceski will become a regularly engaged soloist in Houston.

Karabits’ full-blooded interpretation of Symphonie fantastique emphasized the passion and fantasy of the work. The conductor pushed tempos and dynamics convincingly throughout. The main section of the first movement, taken at a quick pace, immediately indicated that this was not going to be a “safe” performance. The cinematic nature of this and the ensuing movements was highlighted and made the piece sound fittingly modern and revolutionary. While the second movement tempo was perhaps unusually fast, the result was a dizzying, intoxicating dance instead of a polite Parisian waltz scene. Berlioz’s optional cornet part, thankfully included, was finely played, and the two harpists impressed with their virtuosic fingerwork. The English horn and oboe dialogue of the “Scène aux champs” was pure poetry, and the movement was convincingly paced and seemed much shorter than it often does. Karabits let the brass play with thrilling volume of sound, and the first entry of the trombones and tubas in the “Marche au supplice” shot through the hall like a thunderbolt. Woodwinds were deliciously maniacal in the finale and the rest of the orchestra joined in the fray, creating a rousing push toward the finale.

The projected video of the performers was a nice touch. It was great to get close-ups of Trpceski’s fast-flying fingers, and the cameramen were nicely in tune with the goings-on in the orchestra. The mystery of the offstage oboe echoes in the third movement of the Berlioz was a bit spoiled by the visuals, but otherwise this was an engaging addition to the Jones Hall experience.

Karabits might not have the most elegant conducting style, but the end justifies the means. Without a baton, he plucks delicate, precise articulations from the orchestra and coaxes enormous, well-balanced brass chorales with wing-like gestures. One is reminded of a conductor like Dimitri Mitropoulos, whose visceral style created unforgettable, impulsive performances that never became routine. This was one of those performances, and the audience was clearly appreciative of the fresh interpretive stance that Karabits brought to the podium.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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