Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 9, 2016

Grieg Piano Concerto

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
February 6, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

What better way to mark the belated arrival of winter in the Valley than with a concert of Scandinavian music? For the third classical program of the season, SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes selected two familiar masterpieces, and one that should be better known, by three composers from Finland, Norway, and Denmark.

Sibelius’ patriotic tone poem “Finlandia” was a rousing opener in the orchestra’s dramatic performance, tense at the foreboding start, warm in the central hymn-like theme, and thrilling in the triumphant conclusion. The brasses were firm and blazing, while shimmering strings and delicate woodwinds provided sonic and emotional contrast.

Rising American pianist Claire Huangci was featured next in a dazzling account of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. Her technical finesse and interpretive depth made this repertory staple sound new again. From the thunderous power of the opening Allegro, to the glowing hush of the tender Adagio, and the romping energy of the folk like finale, Huangci was in total control. Her greater maturity since her SSO debut in Chopin’s F minor concerto at age 18 in 2008 was impressively evident. The orchestra were equal partners in bringing Grieg’s wide palette of instrumental colors to life. Huangci’s chops were even clearer in her finger-busting encore of Turkish pianist Fazil Say’s jazzy take on Mozart’s Turkish March.

Intermission was followed by a visceral rendition (the SSO’s first) of Nielsen’s rarely heard third symphony. Called “Sinfonia Espansiva” after the “Allegro espansiva” tempo marking of its first movement, the entire piece radiates the zest for life also suggested by its nickname. The vigor of the opening movement, the languor of the pastoral Andante, the gentle humor of the Allegretto, and the high spirits of the finale were all delivered with polish and conviction by Rhodes and his players. The Andante ends with a wordless vocal passage for soprano and baritone, rapturously sung by Dana Lynne Varga and John Salvi, whose voices blended magically with the orchestral instruments.

By evening’s end, the goal stated in the Maestro’s program book “Reflections” to highlight the distinctive individual sounds of three Nordic composers was abundantly achieved.