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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Concert Review: Connecting the Dots

Jonathan Biss and the Orchestra of St. Luke's at Caramoor.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Joshua Weilerstein (standing) conducts Jonathan Biss (seated, center)
and the Orchestra of St. Luke's on Sunday afternoon at Caramoor.
Photo by Gabe Palacios © 2016 Caramoor Festival of the Arts.
This year, the Caramoor Festival awarded the prized post of Artist-in-Residence to Jonathan Biss, the New York-based pianist whose exhaustive approach to Beethoven and Schumann and commitment to modern music has made him a favorite son among New York-based pianists. Sunday's concert saw the first fruits of this collaboration with the Westchester-based arts venue, located on the sprawling faux-Italian Renaissance Rosen Estate, somewhere in the woods outside Katonah, NY.

The concert opened with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 (actually the first one the composer wrote) paired with The Blind Banister by contemporary composer Timo Andres. Mr. Biss took the stage with conductor Joshua Weilerstein, who led the always reliable Orchestra of St. Lukes in a steady and reliable account of this familiar work. This was the beginning of a massive and ambitious program that had the Orchestra and Mr. Weilerstein offer four multi-movement works that in some way had a degree of musical interconnection.

The prosaic accompaniment gave Mr. Biss plenty of elbow room to work, as he introduced the spare, almost geometric themes that showed Beethoven's unique approach to the instrument and hinted at what lay in the composer's future. The artist chose to use the later, revised cadenza in the first movement, making this solo passage a thrilling ride of descending intervals and obsessive turns into labyrinthine counterpoint. The lyric second movement and the quicksilver finale were played with gracious, singing tone and what's more important, profound meaning in each note from the piano.

That dizzy cadenza was the source for The Blind Banister. This three-movement piano concerto commissioned by Mr. Biss as part of his ongoing Beethoven5 project. For the first movement (titled "Sliding Scale")  Mr. Andres chose the descending interval theme that opens that solo outburst, transforming this simple interval into a dazzling set of profound variations both for pianist and orchestra. These demanding passages moved from the keyboard through woodwinds and strings, transforming themselves again and again until the descending figure was met by another that rose in opposition.

The second movement ("Ringing Weights") was a bright, thumping scherzo that used the material for the first as a jumping off point for a trio passage that put the spotlight squarely back on Mr. Biss. And then there was a quick, side-shuffle transition to the finale, which left the artist to grapple with the irreconcilable ascending and descending figures and somehow use his piano to make them agree long enough to be able to finish the piece. This argument ended with a high-speed recap of the sliding scale music. Frustrated, the orchestra and soloist suddenly found themselves with nowhere else to go but back to the start.

The second half of this program dovetailed neatly with the first, featuring two works that also incorporated the piano into their orchestral textures. The first of these was the La Jolla Sinfonia by the underrated and pathetically under-performed Czech composer Bohislav Martinu. Hopefully this was an ear-opener for the Caramoor crowd as the folk-inflected, winsome music of this brilliant Czech modernist spun forth from the skilled St. Luke's players.

The program ended with Haydn's Symphony No. 98, one of the most serious and inward-looking of the normally jovial composer's "London" symphonies. This work, written in the wake of Mozart's sudden death at the age of 35 is unusally somber in tone, paying respect to the younger composer with copius, coded quotes from Mozart's work. Most prominent among these was in the opening of the slow movement, when the orchestra dripped out the lamenting "Porgi, amor" theme from Figaro, transformed just beyond immediate recognition. Mr. Weilerstein led a vigorous performance of the last two movements, catching the audience off-guard with the fermata rest in the middle of the finale, a classic Haydn musical joke. Sadly, at that moment the skies above the Venetian Theater decided to open, making it difficult to appreciate the last lashings of wit that Haydn applied to this final movement.

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