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ISO's conductor and pianist: same person 

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click to enlarge Conductor and pianist Barry Douglas - MARK HARRISON
  • Conductor and pianist Barry Douglas
  • Mark Harrison

A pianist turned conductor. It doesn't happen all the time, but it happens often enough that one can't help noticing the attraction of the one pursuit to the other. A 54-year-old native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Barry Douglas did not trade one job for the other; he does both -- sometimes at once -- as do most other pianist/conductors. In 2007, Douglas led the ISO and played the solo part in Mozart's Concerto No. 25 in C, K. 503. In Friday's concert he repeated this feat. The result was enthralling.

Mozart's 25th possesses a grandeur strongly reminiscent of Beethoven's better known "Emperor" Concerto. But Mozart also imparts a lyric glow not heard in the Beethoven--subtly intermingled with its majestic qualities, and placing it among Mozart's top-o-the-line concertos, which match or exceed anybody's best. Despite the lack of clarinets, which do appear in his Nos. 22, 23, and 24, the richness of his wind writing remains palpable. And the piano writing remains fully integrated into the orchestral fabric.

From the get-go this was an exciting performance. With the piano lid removed and the instrument oriented front-to-back with the keyboard facing the audience, Douglas conducted (without baton) when the piano part was silent, then played when it was not. It worked well enough that piano, strings, winds, brass and timpani played together and stayed together in an exciting, up-tempo performance. The only caveat was that the piano's scale work could have been better articulated. It may have been caused by the reoriented piano's changing its hall acoustic.

Douglas mounted the podium for the evening's two other works: Schumann's Overture in E-flat Minor to Manfred, Op. 115 and Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in B-flat. Op. 60. Yes, it was a program of warhorses, and the Circle Theatre was well filled. Schumann's overture was written to the dramatic poem Manfred by George Gordon, Lord Byron. Some 40 years later Tchaikovsky wrote his four-movement Manfred Symphony on the same subject (having been recorded on CD by Raymond Leppard and the ISO in the early 90s and still available). Douglas brought out Schumann's dour-but-highly-inspired thematic material, but the composer's poor orchestration failed to highlight the sections, rendering the overall effect too seamless. A drier hall acoustic would have helped.

Not so with Beethoven's Fourth. Douglas infused it with energy from start to finish, this "slender Grecian maiden between two Norse giants" -- in the words of Schumann, referring to this symphony and to Beethoven's preceding, massive "Eroica" Symphony and his following, "fateful" Fifth Symphony. Douglas nicely contrasted the Fourth's slow, solemn, B-flat minor introduction, with the flash and dash which followed: the orchestra's romp preceding its lovely Adagio, its lively, rhythmic Scherzo and its racing Finale. Credit principal bassoonist John Wetherill with his short recap solo and effortlessly maintaining the beat. May 16; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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