For someone who dedicated his musical life to writing for the piano, it has always seemed a little odd that Frédéric Chopin, who at the age of 19 was not really adept at writing for an orchestra, should boldly begin his Concerto No. 2 in F Minor for Piano and Orchestra with 60 or so bars of orchestral introduction. However youthful, Chopin's thematic introduction is harmonically engaging and well-structured, so much so that some members of the audience for last week's Knoxville Symphony Orchestra concerts had settled back in their seats, absorbed in Maestro Lucas Richman's attention to orchestral detail, and had apparently forgotten what they had come for—pianist Orli Shaham. As Shaham's piano entered, audience postures noticeably straightened, ready for what she might reveal about Chopin. They weren't disappointed.
Shaham attacked the piece with strength, agility, and purpose that unconsciously communicated a true affinity for the work. Phrases were beautifully articulated, always with a strong melodic point of view, but also with a fearless attention to Chopin's dynamics. Shaham was also comfortable with Chopin's ability to combine virtuosic runs and ripples with subtle little twists of luscious melody, for that is certainly one of the composer's main contributions to the Romantic period piano literature. But Shaham also reveled in the tonal beauty that comes from Chopin's harmonic sensibility, a reflection of his classical roots.
Admittedly, Chopin did not exactly burden his work with a lot of colorful orchestral instrumental texture, although there are some challenging technical moments residing within. It is somewhat surprising, then, that he uses the solo bassoon and horn in several places to set up very attractive, but plaintive and melancholy, underpinnings for the piano's entrance. Richman made use of these moments, but kept the appearances more as exposed suggestions rather than instrumental color.
The second half of the program consisted of two works that, on their face, seemed a bit ill-suited back-to-back. Or so I thought. Richman and the orchestra returned from intermission with the Suite from Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake, in a version containing eight sections. Of particular interest was the fourth section, the second Scene in the suite, which is a slow pas d'action from Act II. Featured here was a beautiful violin solo taken in this performance by guest concertmaster Joseph Meyer, the second of three candidates for the vacant KSO concertmaster position. Meyer's solo was tenderly played, but with an underlying strength that manifested itself in a number of ways, notably a velvety vibrato and razor-sharp intonation.
The last four sections in this suite version, the "Hungarian Dance," "Spanish Dance," "Neapolitan Dance," and "Mazurka," were well-played, but seemed a bit incongruous and thin outside the context of the ballet itself.
I admit I was a little unsure how Franz Liszt's symphonic poem Les Préludes would fare following the diverse textures of Tchaikovsky's ballet music. Thankfully, there was just enough time to clear our musical palates before Richman dove into the somewhat ominous opening of the Liszt piece, which is wonderfully suggestive of Richard Wagner.
While the work offered plenty of opportunity to go over the top with joyous romantic abandon, Richman obviously knew exactly how to achieve a very careful balance between programmatic suggestion and emotional uplift—a balance that separates an unrefined performance from a stellar one. The physical balance between sections seemed to be just right as well, for one could easily catch each instrumental color in both the quiet pastoral moments and in those of the triumphant finale.
Richman opened the evening with the Mozart's Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, a work that will be repeated in the more intimate space of the Bijou Theatre on this month's KSO Chamber Classics concert of opera highlights.