Friday, January 29, 2016

Benjamin Grosvenor and OSO present a sometimes sparkling, if imperfect Chopin

Benjamin Grosvenor
The Oregon Symphony welcomed pianist Benjamin Grosvenor to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last Saturday, January 23 to perform Chopin's Concerto No 1 in E Minor for Piano and Orchestra. It was a diverse evening, featuring the Oregon premier of an Arthur Honegger work and a symphony by Dvorak, conducted by Tomas Netopil.

Honegger's Rugby (Mouvement symphonique No. 2) was a short piece of atonal cacophony, full of blaring horns, swirling strings, and syncopated exclamations--in short the type of brief show piece at which the OSO typically excels; and this was no exception.

The meat of the evening was the Chopin, featuring the young Grosvenor as soloist. The orchestra started in fine form; in the opening movement a flute theme, subdued yet masterfully in place, floated over a sea of sentimental strings in the thematic exposition. Unfortunately Grosvenor whiffed the climax of the opening cadenza, though this didn't overshadow his incredibly skilled and nuanced scale passages throughout the entire work. There were some problems with the brass drowning out the soloist from time to time, especially in the first movement. Thanks in part to some magnificent and insightful pedaling, Grosvenor was able to weave mellifluous dreamscapes of startling beauty, especially when both hands were in middle to upper registers.

The second movement was tender and superbly rendered--the numerous chromatic passages throughout were not bereft of melodic intent, but infused with meaning and purpose.  The playful theme of the rondo--in which Grosvenor still had to fight with the horns--was fantastically rapid, the scalar motives flowing like water rippling over pebbles. Grosvenor's left hand was often subsumed in the lower registers when the dynamic was anything other than forte; some of this fault lay with the orchestra but not all.

The Dvorak opened with nice stentorian unity from the ensemble, whether in hammering out block chords or throwing up titanic walls of sound. The Adagio was defined by a chameleonic shift to a dark and somber place in the work...which was suddenly gone, the orchestra weaving in and out of conflicting emotions without hiccup. Netopil's interpretation of the exciting dance theme of the third movement ultimately felt a bit broad and labored--it was not as rhythmically tight and explosive as one might hope from what was essentially a Slavonic dance by Dvorak, but the piece ended with a robust and remarkable finale. All in all the evening was somewhat disjointed; there were fine moments of top notch artistry as well as moments that felt out of synch.

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