Recap: Enthusiastic conductor, accomplished pianist produce art from adversity with Symphony

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. 

Pianist Martin 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.

Guest conductor 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. It’s another thing to wow an audience with it. 

Helmchen earned an immediate standing ovation plus two return bows for a performance of poise, precision and polish. 

Much as 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. 

The pianist, all by himself, sets the tone for what follows. Helmchen, gave 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. 

Helmchen’s 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. The thrilling finale, a work of exceptional conception for the orchestra, plus technical virtuosity for the soloist, garnered even more enthusiasm. 

The Grand 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. 

Robert 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 opens work. 

Unequal in balance, incomplete in ideas, it’s one of the most flawed symphonies by one of the great composers that remain in the repertoire. It imitates a 19th century novel as a progression of ideas, rather than an exploration of melodic development and harmonic progression within a specific form. 

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.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 07:00
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