A Gripping Concert
Hector Berlioz: "Le Carnaval romain," Overture for Orchestra in A major, Op. 9
Richard Strauss: Suite from "Der Rosenkavalier", TrV 227, Op. 59
Sergei Prokofiev: Concerto No. 3 in C Major for Piano & Orchestra, Op. 26
Lang Lang (Piano)
The Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta (Conductor)
Since Music Director Michael Christie's tenure ended last May, the artistic flame of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra (PSO) has been awaiting a beacon. Until the Board of Directors finds the gem that this orchestra deserves, JoAnn Falletta, currently at the helm of the Buffalo Philharmonic, will serve as Principal Guest Conductor this season, and we welcome her back warm-heartedly to Phoenix. One of the leading female conductors in the world, she has garnered a solid reputation and brought the Buffalo Phil to a level of excellence never attained before.
The program opens with Berlioz' overture The Roman Carnival. Falletta and PSO provide a vigorous account of the piece with tempos well in place and clarity. The beat is incisive and she clearly marks all the nuances and details, a paramount approach with such virtuosic orchestral texture. Paula Engerer delivers the English horn solo with germane phrasing and acute musicality. Berlioz wrote this stand-alone piece after a disappointing premiere of his rarely performed opera Benvenuto Cellini. The overture is based on two themes from the opera, the love duet between Teresa and Cellini, and the fast-paced Trasteverine dance, known as the saltarello, from the Roman Carnival scene in Act I.
The next piece is also based on an opera, Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. The quiet waltz ("Ohne mich…") is delicately played with a buoyant Viennese rhythm that, unfortunately, many conductors miss. The "Suite" takes flight and blooms with an agreeable balance between heroism and revelry.
It is no surprise that Lang Lang chose to take Prokofiev's Third piano concerto on a road show across the world to promote his recording of this piece, released just two days ago under the SONY label, with the Berlin Philharmonic led by Simon Rattle.
Prokofiev was an impressive keyboard virtuoso. The Russian composer's first two piano concertos are a mere reflection of his firework-like pianism, but the third one has more depth and substance. Last night brought an equitable distribution of labor, Lang Lang providing the fingers and Falletta the soul. The Chinese pianist, after years of overly colored performances and flamboyant virtuosity yoked to no discernible musical purpose, seems to have toned down the histrionic mannerisms. Last night showed the super star had made progress and deepened his artistic development. Whereas he tossed off the challenging flourishes of the first and third movements with dazzling confidence, he showed ability with texture in the variations of the middle movement, creating delicate and subdued filigrees. Falletta and the musicians did what was required of them and their performance was infectious. Lang Lang graciously offered three encores, Chopin's Grande valse brillante, followed by his Valse, Op. 64, No. 2, and an electrifying Etude, Op. 8, No. 12 by Scriabin.
It is extremely promising to see that those fine musicians, energized by a brilliant conductor and an amazing soloist, can surpass themselves when the chemistry is right. In ten years of attending PSO concerts, I have never heard them play so well, nor have I witnessed such vibrant response from the audience. Surely, it would not take much to make this orchestra one of the best in the country. Just an inspiring leader with JoAnn Falletta's stature.