Review: Symphony gives Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ a fresh spin
Pianist Jeremy Denk and conductor Cristian Macelaru impress and delight at Jacobs Music Center
By Christian Hertzog
San Diego Union-Tribune
January 17, 2016
To make the old and familiar sound fresh and new again — this is what great musicians strive for in playing the classics.
On Saturday evening at Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall, pianist Jeremy Denk, conductor Cristian Măcelaru, and the San Diego Symphony did just that. They scraped away the heroic bombast and syrupy sentimentality that all too frequently begrime Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto.
They revealed a noble edifice, compelling in musical argument, yet full of surprises that still had power to delight or impress. Echoing the title of the Symphony’s monthlong investigation of piano concertos, this “Emperor” concerto was truly “Upright & Grand.”
In their performative restoration, Denk and Măcelaru kept rubato to a minimum, yet the crisp rhythmic drive of the outer movements never felt mechanical. Climaxes and other significant arrival points were meticulously calculated, channeling the inexorable sweep of Beethoven’s momentum into a delineation of his majestic musical architecture.
Some pianists rely on the resonance of the piano’s pedal to create great volume, but not Denk. His pedaling was remarkably clean. It was a marvel to see his hands suspended 8 inches above the keys, descending with little warning, producing a loud, full, yet musical sonority. Denk’s clean, powerful tone helped avoid the sonic bluster that so many pianists succumb to in this concerto.
Măcelaru was a sympathetic collaborator. He achieved a focus with the orchestra too infrequently heard under Jahja Ling’s baton, an ability to properly balance the ensemble at just the right volume.
Speaking of volume, Măcelaru seemed to expand the orchestra’s dynamic range, enabling them to play more softly than usual, while their loud tuttis had a clarity not often heard in Copley Symphony Hall. This was especially true in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1.
Also evident in the Shostakovich Symphony was Măcelaru’s ability to seamlessly move from soft to loud, and vice versa. His smooth crescendos were like accelerating in a car with a well-calibrated automatic transmission, the shift from one gear to the next imperceptible.
Conversation at intermission and after the concert turned to the possibility of Măcelaru becoming our next music director. Let’s hope he’s being considered for the job, and that he’s willing to accept if offered.
In addition to celebrating piano concertos and soloists, the “Upright & Grand” festival has also featured orchestrations of piano music. One of the lesser known yet better arrangements heard on the festival so far was John Adams’ version of “La Lugubre Gondola II” by Franz Liszt, which Adams translates as The Black Gondola.
Many associate Liszt’s piano music with florid, virtuosic passagework, but “Lugubre Gondola” is a spare and melancholy work. At times the piano dwindles down to a single, soft, chromatically meandering line. The result, in the hands of a pianist with great tonal range, can be disturbing — a tiny, lost melody that can’t find any grounding on its own; a ghastly attempt at a song faintly croaked out by a skeleton.
In Adams’ effective orchestration, these lines are given life by throbbing strings. This orchestral version sings more, although the wandering melody still disturbs in its refusal to give listeners a solid footing. Notable solo work was heard from Sheryl Renk (clarinet), Darby Henshaw (horn) and Andrea Overturf (English horn), all of whom played hauntingly.
For complete review: www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2016/jan/17/emperor-concerto-san-diego-symphony.