Musical Engineering 

Going through the motions

Going through the motions

At age 14, Helen Huang is by no means the youngest child prodigy in musical history. The standard for musical precocity was set by Mozart, who, by the time he had reached his early teens, had already written his ninth piano concerto, the earliest of his concertos that can be considered a mature work. Neither is Miss Huang the best of the “generation Z” artists, if her performances last weekend with the Nashville Symphony are any indication of her pianistic prowess. This is not to say that Huang is in any way a bad performer. She is, however, an artist concerned more with safety than with soul.

Throughout Huang’s reading of the Piano Concerto in C major, op. 15 by Beethoven, her playing was technically proficient but emotionally immature. All of the notes were there, but in each movement the tempi seemed to have been slowed to accommodate them. Her phrasing was almost metronomically correct throughout, but it never had the exuberance and flair that one expects in the music of the young Beethoven.

The first-movement cadenza provided an excellent example of how Huang’s technical strengths became artistic weaknesses. This is the longest of the three cadenzas that Beethoven provided for the C major concerto, and, at Huang’s pace, it seemed to go on forever. There were many chances to build a real sense of drama, but Huang forsook them all. She nailed all of the trickiest passagework, but her indecision on what to do with her left hand robbed the performance of real substance. What should have been a gutsy Beethovenian fantasia came off as a well-rehearsed student exercise; it also sounded as if it had been memorized in sections. Huang needed more brio in this Allegro con brio.

Huang’s reliance on mere proficiency also robbed the Allegro scherzando of much of its capriciousness. While bravado was needed, only grace was proffered. Mechanical is too pejorative a description for the young pianist’s performance, but it did seem as though the piece had been rehearsed so much that it no longer had any life. In an episode of muffed passagework near the end, it became evident that tempi and phrasing had been tailored to fit Huang’s performance.

Even the Largo middle movement plodded. The very slow tempi might have been the occasion for a very poetic interpretation, if other elements of the poetry had been present. Huang made little attempt to shape phrases into statements of emotion, nor did she display any flexibility in the matter of tempi. It was at this point that I realized the lack of power in Huang’s left hand was badly hampering her ability to make a personal statement concerning the music.

In a work for which the symphony is seldom called upon for more than support, NSO members acquitted themselves very well. They provided a firm framework that never covered the soloist. I had some problems hearing the woodwinds at the outset, but the low movement had some beautiful clarinet solos, and the horn playing had a splendid nocturnal quality.

There was far more visceral fun in any two moments of Commedia by William Bolcom, the piece that opened this NSO concert pair, than in the whole of the performance of Beethoven’s youthful piano concerto. This piece was a hoot, and it continued to amuse a gang of us throughout the intermission as we totted up the musical quotes. Just as literature students love to track down the borrowings in T.S. Eliot’s poetry, we had fun detecting the musical allusions to Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Thomas Tallis, Bernstein, “Danny Boy,” Berlioz, and a piano tone cluster borrowed from Ferde Grofé’s thunderstorm in the Grand Canyon Suite.

These quotations are imbedded in a work that features the orchestra in its most colorful modern vein alternating with sections performed by a trio sonata group. It was all played very well, but the strings deserve special praise for their aplomb at delivering every special trick in the book—and with quicksilver metamorphosis. Kudos also to Charlene Harb for her Stravinskian piano interjections, and to the whole horn section. Commedia is not music for the ages, and many in the audience squirmed at its frequent modernity, but it made for a rambunctious orchestral test of a concert opener. It deserves to be heard more frequently, and it should probably go on the list of pieces the NSO is considering for future recordings.

The Debussy and Rachmaninoff pieces that formed the second half of the concert were good examples of how the slow tempi, homogenized sound, and pointed phrasing that characterized the conducting of Herbert von Karajan can be a boon or a blast to a work’s concert hall re-creation. Maestro Kenneth Schermerhorn’s Karajan-esque reading of Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun showed just how well this approach can work. The tempi were languid, and the drawn out phrases, rushing pulse points, and close feel of Schermerhorn’s reading conveyed the impression of a white heat cooled by Mediterranean sea breezes.

Passages in this performance were some of the loveliest playing I have ever encountered. Star turns by concertmaster Mary Kathryn Vanosdale and assistant concertmaster Gerald C. Greer, oboist Bobby Taylor, and harpist Barbara Wehlan-Miller deserve applause. I was less satisfied by the work of interim principal flutist Claudia Walker. Her rendering of the famous flute theme was competent, but it had little fluidity of phrase. This may have been due to a bad case of nerves; if so, I hope we can look forward to calmer performances in the future. One last note on the Debussy, regarding the last note of the Debussy: The horn fadeout at the end was dreamy—more a wraithlike memory of music than the music itself.

Schermerhorn’s Karajan-esque approach to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances was less successful. Let me say that this is a favorite piece by one of my favorite composers; I have listened considerable times to recordings by Leonard Slatkin conducting the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Both these performances are characterized by bravura performances with much attention to small instrumental detail.

This detail was well-served in the NSO’s performance. Yes, the Symphonic Dances gush with romantic bliss, but the piece is a 20th-century work, and parts of it require all the percussive grittiness of any work by Bartok. This percussiveness was well supplied by timpanist William Wiggins, who knows how to give rhythmic support but proved here that he also knows how to take the lead. The brasses were hot. From where I sat, they seemed to boost the ensemble to its limits without obliterating the music-making, and they contributed a special soaring quality to climaxes in each movement. Violas were particularly lovely in the second movement, and the trumpets’ misterioso opening here was positively creepy.

Schermerhorn’s overall concept, however, did not work for me. His Karajan-esque tempi kept this performance from catching fire. With the exception of the overpowering ending—the point at which Schermerhorn really cut loose—this loping pace contributed to an all too frequent breakdown in the performance’s melodic line. Rachmaninoff was a Bill Clinton of melody—none of his typical passages is short-winded. When those passages become too attenuated, however, they begin to show breaks. In this performance, the breakdown resulted in a series of vignettes rather than a smooth flow of music. “Failure” is far too strong a word to describe a performance that had so much going for it, but it was not a success.

One final note: This concert was this year’s Lawrence S. Levine Memorial Concert, the one performance in the season devoted to the presentation of the classical music world’s developing stars. After his death in 1981, Levine’s family inaugurated a fund, which provides for this series, to ensure the orchestra’s continued growth and artistic merit. It is a noble endeavor to which others are encouraged to lend their support. Contact the Nashville Symphony offices for more information. And if you seek Levine’s memorial, listen about you.


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