Passion Sometimes Lacking in Precision: The Quad City Symphony Orchestra, October 1 at the Adler Theatre Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Frederick Morden   
Thursday, 06 October 2011 09:42

Passion proved to be the Quad City Symphony Orchestra’s strength in its season-opening program at the Adler Theater on October 1, but the performance was vulnerable to imprecision.

While the program was titled Beethoven 5, the highlight of the concert was a brilliant performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s demanding Third Piano Concerto by guest pianist Haochen Zhang with bold yet sensitive accompaniment by the symphony under the direction of Music Director and Conductor Mark Russell Smith.

Claimed by Rachmaninoff as his “favorite,” the third concerto is one of the five most difficult in the entire piano-concerto repertoire. But the 21-year-old Zhang didn’t seem intimidated, bringing a staggering technical prowess and erudite vision to his performance. His slight stature belied powerful hands, filling the Adler with prodigious sound and demonstrating that the new Steinway concert grand piano can be both percussive and poetic.

At times, Zhang pushed the tempo of technically demonic passages to nearly incomprehensible virtuosity. Although he played both melodic and accompanying notes with each hand, he clearly differentiated them, making the performance easily understood despite the score’s complex and contradictory melodic passages.

While the concerto spotlights the soloist, the orchestra made the most of the moments when it was the main attraction. It produced huge, lush, passionate sound but let softer, introspective moments rest in the hands of the principal players. The oboe and French horn, for instance, played with resonantly full sound and expansive expression.

This performance was a triumph for Zhang and the orchestra, but also for Smith, who merged the soloist and ensemble into a cohesive musical statement from the podium. The concerto rarely had a strict, clock-like beat; it was more like a rubber band stretching between the conductor and soloist, with each pulling the other along or holding back. Smith followed Zhang at times, adroitly moving the orchestra into the ever-changing pace of the soloist, listening for the pulling and translating the message to the orchestra. At other times, Zhang followed Smith.

The audience got it, leaping to its feet, an effusive reaction to a stunning performance. If the house lights had not been turned up before the applause ended, there might have been an encore.

Where Rachmaninoff requires passion, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 calls for precision, and the orchestra showed minor rhythmic instability. Although the orchestra played the first movement with grit and intensity, it struggled to find a consensus tempo. Like trying to jump aboard a moving bus, players occasionally mistimed entrances, disrupting the rhythmic vehicle that makes this movement such an icon of classical music. In the legato second theme, the strings were deeply resonant and rich in sound color, but the winds struggled to find dynamic balance.

The slow second movement was played with warmth and strength. The winds were dramatic and triumphant as a group, while principal players elegantly exchanged solos in softer sections.

Basses and cellos showed agility in the third movement – mysteriously smooth in the beginning with careful attention to Beethoven’s subtle dynamic markings and then bang, like a machine gun in the second section.

The hypnotic transition to the fourth movement was magical. With only the soft, pulsating timpani and meandering violin, the music contained all the tenuous uncertainty and suspense needed to make the entrance into the last movement the triumph it should be.

In the final movement, the orchestra intensified Beethoven’s great rhythmic engines and grinding, repetitive melodic fragments, creating a propulsive energy that moved inexorably to an exciting final cadence.

Antonin Dvorak’s splashy Carnival Overture opened the concert with fast, acrobatic strings characteristic of the composer’s folk-inspired pieces.

But there were problems. While directional trumpets and trombones played into or slightly aside their music stands, the wooden reflecting panels bounced raw horn sounds out into the audience, making them sound out of balance. And there were a few ragged entrances brought about, in part, by the ensemble’s struggle to maintain the consistent tempo.

Those didn’t detract, however, from a performance that was exciting overall.

The Quad City Symphony’s next Masterworks concert, Poems on Fate, will be performed November 5 and 6. For more information, visit QCSymphony.com.

Frederick Morden is a retired orchestra-music director, conductor, composer, arranger, educator, and writer who has served on the executive board of the Conductors Guild.