Saturday, April 12, 2014

APA Fellow Sean Chen makes first concerto appearance here since winning Cliburn bronze

Launched into prominence by the golden boost of the 2013 American Pianists Association Classical Fellowship, Sean Chen is back in Indianapolis this weekend to indicate — not that anyone needed more evidence — that his victory here was no fluke.

Sean Chen showed his good taste with a reflective Bach encore.
The vehicle is Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, in two Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performances with German conductor Christoph Konig on the podium at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Chen displayed crisp articulation through the thickets of figuration and octaves in the outer movements, with the addition of expressive insight that seemed to freshen up the familiar work.

His tone in the "Andantino semplice" had a rare refinement for a young player, and the effect was mesmerizing, especially with the contrast offered by the frantic waltz in the middle. It was well-coordinated with scurrying strings by Konig. The finale had a rhythmic liveliness that suited Konig's style as an accompanist, making for hand-in-glove coordination up through the final thrilling bars.

The concert opened with this year's Glick Young Composer's Showcase winner, "Supercell" by Troy Armstrong.  The young Oklahoman's work was rooted in his background in one of the country's prime regions for tornadoes.

For about six minutes, the orchestra swirled with foreboding and devastation. There was astutely managed contrast in the eerie periods of calm between moments of impact.  We could be grateful for the composer's taste in doing something more than producing a frightful noise. There was menace enough in his incorporation of man-made sounds: warning sirens mimicked by a near-the-bridge viola whine. On top of that, it was musically evident that nature was the master — as it is in real life.

Leading up to intermission was that miracle of late Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C major ("Jupiter"). Konig's approach was quite detailed, but there seemed an overall appreciation of the equal weight the score gives to — let's introduce a couple of other classical gods here — Dionysian and Apollonian qualities. In other words, this masterpiece, especially in the last movement, displays Mozart as a learned, high-minded musician as well as a reveler. "The learned musician" is a phrase associated with Christoph Wolff's much-acclaimed biography of J.S. Bach more than a decade ago. Ideally applied to Bach, it in no way can be read as downplaying the emotional import of Bach's music.  But in the finale of this symphony, Mozart, usually thought of as an instinctive genius deft with deep feelings, deserves that phrase as well.

The finale was given all due glory in Friday's performance. But from the start, Konig had some winning ideas about the piece. The "Allegro vivace" had a seductiveness and sweetness that recalled Mozart's great operatic comedies. The interpretation we heard could almost have had words set to it by Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist of "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Cosi fan tutte."

The lightness of mood never meant gliding over intricate detail. Konig made the most of the expressive complexity of the slow movement. After that, the minuet movement was given an affectionate cast. I was reminded of one of the P.D.Q. Bach parodies by Peter Schickele, in which the main theme morphs into the lilting German love song, "Du, du, liegst mir im Herzen."

Then we were ready for the ascent of Olympus in the last movement. In performances like this one, astonishment never ceases. You keep saying to yourself, "I can't believe he just did THAT, and now here comes THIS." Very few pieces one has heard often can so dependably render you slack-jawed with wonder. This is one of them, and so it did in this cloud-capped performance.

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