ISO concert special with Sean Chen 

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click to enlarge Pianist Sean Chen
  • Pianist Sean Chen

Friday's ISO concert was an add-on to its original season schedule--meaning season-ticket holders did not have tickets for this one. This may have explained the rather poor turnout for a program dominated by two repertoire warhorses. Young guest conductor Christoph König (a native of Dresden, Germany) proved to have an excellent grasp of Mozart's final symphony, No. 41 in C, K.551 ("Jupiter"), followed by probably the world's most popular concerto, Tchaikovsky's No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23, with APA Fellow Sean Chen on the keyboard.

Mozart's "Jupiter" was the last of three he wrote in July 1788 on his own, without any commission or other sponsorship. He saw the growth of that genre from its childhood--and his--to its adolescence--and his--to its full adulthood with those three, along with No. 38, the "Prague," from a year earlier. These last four, plus some of the late Haydn London symphonies, defined the symphony as the dominant absolute-music form for the 19th century, a form which Beethoven then expanded.

König mostly succeeded in revealing the complex harmonic and melodic tapestry of the "Jupiter's" four movements, repeating the expositions of the first, second and fourth, which should always be done. His third movement, labeled a minuet, went too fast and was given an inappropriate waltz-like lilt. Those three beats to a measure should have been in strict time, including the "trio" section, which should have maintained the tempo.

On the other hand, the fugal fourth movement's fast tempo was wholly appropriate, its five themes miraculously wound together at the end. Herein König showed a few balance problems such that the strings were inaudible when they shouldn't have been. Otherwise the performance thrilled, as hearing the "Jupiter" often does.

The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto is the one standard from the 19th century which manages to equalize the importance of the soloist with that of the orchestra (most of the others place the orchestra in the back seat). Filled with melody, memorable themes (one of Russian folk origin), motifs and bridge passages all skillfully worked together save for the opening "Tonight We Love" theme, which serves as a non-repeated introduction, the work mixes lyricism and drama in as perfect a Gestalt as anything he wrote. Tchaikovsky failed to come close to this achievement in his Second and his one-movement Third piano concertos.

König's dynamic shaping impressively showed his instrumental forces at their best. But Chen's pianism was even more impressive, handling the chords, the passage work, the octave jumps, the scale runs and the decorative filigree (not much of that in this one) with general ease and assurance (even with a few slips here and there). Chen played as a true APA Fellow.

The program opened with a seven-minute trifle, Supercell, by 24-year-old American Troy Armstrong, which depicts one of the largest, most fearsome storms in the mid-west, including tornadoes. Despite being a year-old contemporary piece, Troy uses a rather conservative ensemble, not calling for "special effect" instruments. In addition, his harmonic structure did not contain the dissonance of much "new" music. But given the way these pieces go, I probably won't hear it again. April 11-12; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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