Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 18, 2023

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, "Madness & Mystery"

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA 
April 15, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Jiayan Sun
The fifth classical concert of the SSO’s 2022-2023 season showcased the international appeal of classical music, with Singapore native Tianlui Ng leading the orchestra and Chinese-born pianist Jiayan Sun in three masterpieces by two English composers and one Russian.   

Music Director of the Pioneer Valley Symphony and a Mount Holyoke College music professor, Ng opened with a powerful reading of the “Four Sea Interludes” from Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera “Peter Grimes.” The antisocial behavior of its title character, an 1830s fisherman on England’s east coast, evokes the “madness and mystery” of the concert’s title. “Dawn,” the first interlude, was eerie and ominous; “Sunday Morning,” briskly boisterous; “Moonlight,” calm and haunting; and “Storm,” viscerally grim. 
Next came a blockbuster account of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s popular 1901 second piano concerto, written after treatment by a hypnotist over three years of creative paralysis, the composer-pianist’s own experience of “madness.” The unsentimental opening solo chords aligned Sun’s interpretation closely with Rachmaninoff’s own classic recording. But the internationally acclaimed soloist and Smith College music professor also shaded his technical prowess to the shifting emotions of each movement. A dramatic opening “Moderato,” a radiant “Adagio sostenuto,” and a volatile “Allegro scherzando” received lush support from conductor and orchestra. 

The evening closed with a thrilling performance of Edward Elgar’s 1899 “Enigma Variations,” named after a “mystery” about the piece suggested by the composer: “The Enigma I will not explain.” But he did name each of its 14 “variations on an original theme” after a person in his life. Following a lucid statement of the modest opening theme, Ng and the SSO sharply and lovingly characterized each inventive variation. Highlights included: a tender first variation, for Elgar’s wife; a moving ninth variation, honoring his publisher; a hilarious eleventh variation, for an organist neighbor and his bulldog; and the swashbuckling final variation, poking grandiose fun at himself. 

Brief remarks by Ng preceding each piece helped the large, enthusiastic audience better understand the music and his personal connection to it. The winning stage presence of the conductor and of pianist Sun not only reminded listeners of the abundant world-class musical talent in the Pioneer Valley but suggested that both would be welcome return visitors to Symphony Hall.