Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Watts Happening

Watts Happening

By Tom Wachunas

Canton Symphony Orchestra, Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio

Richard Wagner: Prelude to Die Meistersinger Von Nurenberg (1868)
Richard Strauss: Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24 (1889)
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1901)

One constant in the concerts by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is a big, lush sound you’d expect from a much larger orchestra. It’s always impeccably balanced and enveloping. While the level of the musicians’ technical mastery is certainly a contributing factor, another all-important element that gives this orchestra such an electrifying presence is its astonishing ability to identify and amplify the very soul of the music – a capacity nurtured, to be sure, by Maestro Zimmermann’s interpretive powers. It’s the difference between competent (albeit magnificent, as was the case here) playing, and genuinely inspired performing. In that regard, the orchestra delivered its November 14 program at Umstattd Hall with unfettered brilliance.

Zimmermann addressed the audience before performing the first selection, Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger Von Nurenberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg). At the end of his very touching and gently humorous remembrance of Linda Moorhouse, the deeply loved former CSO president and CEO who passed away last year, he nodded affectionately at the nearby empty orchestra chair on stage. It was certainly a poignant reminder. The Wagner work was a Moorhouse favorite, and so the performance, which perfectly captured the work’s exhilarating air of graceful majesty, was dedicated to her. This was surely a heartfelt start to an evening that would continually probe even more resonant emotional depths.

If you didn’t know that Richard Straus was just a young man of 25 when he wrote his tone poem, Death and Transfiguration, you might have thought the work came from a very old soul, struggling to reconcile deep existential concerns. The orchestra gave a thoroughly riveting account of this haunting, contemplative, and ultimately triumphal vision of a life lived and transcended. Particularly enthralling were the explosive, crackling passages wherein brass and strings seemed to be caught up in stormy spirals, suggesting perhaps thick plumes of dark smoke that dissipate into gentle, light-filled wisps.

The atmosphere in the hall after intermission was vibrating with a sense of both ebullience and growing anticipation of the appearance of guest soloist, the inimitable pianist Andre Watts. And once again, a remembrance. Watts was the featured soloist when Zimmerman conducted his first concert as the newly hired CSO Music Director 30 years ago. They have since performed more than 14 concerti together in various other venues. Their chemistry is indeed a seasoned and powerful one, and in eminently fine form on this occasion.

At the beginning of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 - with its low, dark piano chords reminiscent of gently rolling, distant thunder – Watts seemed to be tentatively negotiating his aural balance with the orchestra as the strings introduced the main theme. In fact it was this spirit of nuanced negotiation between keyboard and orchestra that did in fact resolve and settle into a remarkable symbiosis throughout most of the performance. You could actually see how Watts and the orchestra were listening to each other. This is, after all, an iconic work – a masterpiece of monumental piano pyrotechnics that could easily overshadow orchestral presence.

But even in its most dominant moments, Watts’ startlingly muscular power nonetheless illuminated the work’s poetry. And nowhere was that poetry more beautifully stated and balanced than in the lovely second movement. Here, it’s worth noting that the playing of the main theme by principal clarinetist Randy Klein was particularly memorable for its sweet, plaintive lyricism.

By the time Watts had finished the third movement, with colossal virtuosity and passion, it was clear we had witnessed something of a phenomenon. In a way I think he has re-invented this work, and in the end not so much negotiated with the giant, so to speak, as eloquently conversed with it. And passionate conversation can be draining.

So it is that many present may have been disappointed that no encore was forthcoming, even after bringing Watts back to the stage some four or five times to roof-rattling applause. But how does one follow an act like that? I was reminded of the proverbial victorious star athlete who leaves it all on the field after a super-human performance.

No comments: