Stephen Hough’s tremendous talent was on display once again with the Oregon Symphony. This time around (Nov. 2), the virtuosic Brit delivered a scintillating performance of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, mesmerizing the audience at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. His memorable appearance with the orchestra was matched by an equally impressive debut on the podium Clemens Schuldt, whose balletic conducting style was fascinating to watch.
From the opening demonstrative runs up and down the keyboard to languid, melodic passages, Hough commanded the concerto thoroughly. With his buttery smooth technique, the unrelenting arpeggios flowed gracefully, and he punctuated the aggressive sections with impeccably placed accents. Whether generating lingered pensively or cascaded like a rushing stream, Hough gave it a direction so that it never sounded ostentatious or like mere fluff.
Hough’s superb playing registered instantly with the audience, which broke out in rapturous applause at the end of the piece. The cheers brought him back to center stage several times, and he responded with an encore, an intoxicating invention that created a mysterious shimmer with feathery-light, sustained notes that were layered on top of each other
Guest conductor Schuldt, who helms the Munich Chamber Orchestra, used a playful gestures and dance-like footwork to elicit a terrific sound. Sometimes he stabbed towards the musicians and at other times and at other times he didn’t direct at all, letting the sound come to him. The result was a fresh and inspired performance of Schumann’s Symphony No. 1. (“Spring”). The triangle (Niel DePonte) put a glint of happiness on the first movement. The trills in the second movement were elegant but not fussy. Other highlights included subtle phrases from the clarinet, a lovely French horn duet, a delightful flute solo, exchanges between the woodwinds and the strings, the pristine lines from the strings, and the build up to the finale.
Schuldt’s animated style enhanced the playing of two shorts works by Lili Boulanger: Of a Sad Evening and On a Spring Morning. The first piece had a warm, somber side that contained a steady, plodding beat, which suggested doom. Yet it all ended with an ethereal ascending line and feeling of heavenly restfulness. The second piece sparkled with parts for the orchestra that seemed to echo each other. It is a great tragedy that Boulanger’s short life – she died when she was just 24 years old – leaves us to wonder what else she might have written.
Back to the Schumann, Schuldt received a compliment from the orchestra when concertmaster Sarah Kwak refused to stand and allowed the audience to shower him with enthusiastic applause. He and the orchestra had a little surprise already in mind – and it was in keeping with the theme of springtime – Johan Strauss Jr’s Voices of Spring. It was performed with outstanding dynamics, including finely drawn changes in tempo that would have made Willi Boskovsky proud. It would be wonderful to hear Schuldt conduct the orchestra again in the near future.