By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk
Trial and adversity sometimes produces great art.
Ludwig van Beethoven
endured the loss of his hearing. Robert Schumann suffered the loss of his
sanity and, eventually, his life. Both of their miseries lasted a lifetime. But
the work the produced lasts forever.
Helmchen, a German-born, prize-winning pianist, made his debut in DeVos
Performance Hall on Friday, March 18, to give an insightful performance of
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with the Grand Rapids Symphony.
Perry So, the seventh of eight guest conductors to appear with the Grand Rapids
Symphony this season, was on the podium for the concert in the Richard and
Helen DeVos Classical Series that repeats on Saturday, March 19.
So, a Hong
Kong native and a past associate conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, is
the final newcomer who’s a contender to become the next music director of the Grand
Rapids Symphony. His enthusiastic debut was quite impressive in the concert sponsored by Zhang Financial.
It’s easy to
please an audience with the “Emperor,” Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto and his
last say on the subject. It’s the only one Beethoven didn’t compose for
himself. The only one he never heard except in his heart and soul.
thing to wow an audience with it.
earned an immediate standing ovation plus two return bows for a performance of poise,
precision and polish.
Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony in E-flat was a game-changer in the annals of
music history, so was Beethoven’s “Emperor” in E-flat as well. Clocking in at
some 40 minutes in length, it’s symphonic in scale, though it opens with little
more than the solo piano, punctuated with orchestral hits.
all by himself, sets the tone for what follows.
a performance of assured restraint and elegant phrasing, contrasting and
complementing with So’s more extraverted handling of an orchestra that was
raring to go following an enthusiastic reading of a recent work by contemporary
French composer Guillaume Connesson.
singing tone and refined artistry clarified the inner workings of the music. So,
who had never collaborated with Helmchen or with the Grand Rapids Symphony, proved
adept at handling both forces. The lengthy opening movement ended with a
sustained burst of applause from the audience.
thrilling finale, a work of exceptional conception for the orchestra, plus
technical virtuosity for the soloist, garnered even more enthusiasm.
Rapids Symphony this past season has risen to the challenge of collaborating
with a new conductor nearly every week this past season, not to mention working
through new material with a new handler.
New for the
ensemble this week is “Supernova,” a two-movement work by Connesson. It sounds
like what you’d expect: An astronomical event of considerable proportions.
Strings spiral off in separate directions like
escaping electrons. Blasts of brass and a large battery of percussion from rain
stick to gong, gets everyone into the act.
It’s also much
easier said than done.
So, who served as an inaugural Dudamel Conducting Fell
with the Los Angeles Philharmonic a decade ago, led a commanding performance,
clearly communicating his intentions to the orchestra, which embraced the 21st
century work that is neither avant-garde nor esoteric. It’s interesting music,
and it was played with fervor.
Schumann, who suffered with depression all his life, had his first, full-scale
mental collapse at age 34. The following year, he threw himself into a study of
counterpoint. By the end of the year, he had sketched out his Symphony No. 2. The
drums and trumpets he heard blaring in his head became fanfare-like motto that
balance, incomplete in ideas, it’s one of the most flawed symphonies by one of
the great composers that remain in the repertoire.
a 19th century novel as a progression of ideas, rather than an
exploration of melodic development and harmonic progression within a specific
It takes vision
and effort to knock it together so it makes sense. So, who clearly is fond of
the piece, led a performance of irrepressible energy and mature judgement.
Winner of first and special prizes at the Fifth
International Prokofiev Conducting Competition in 2008, the well-traveled
conductor proved he’s ready, willing and able to tackle most anything that’s put
before him. That’s a useful skill set for any conductor.