Conductor Pavel Baleff first appeared with the Spokane Symphony three years ago in a program of Brahms and Schumann so beautifully presented that audiences were left awaiting his return eagerly.
The wait ended Saturday night when Maestro Baleff conducted the orchestra in a program of some less familiar music and partnered with a brilliant young pianist in a justly popular concerto – that in A minor, Op. 16 (1868), by Edvard Grieg (1843-1931).
The program began with the concert overture, “Hamlet” Op. 16 (1861) by Danish composer Niels Gade. It is a thoroughly conventional work with little claim to originality, yet it provided the audience with great pleasure thanks to attributes of both the conductor and the orchestra.
Baleff (b. 1970) has two qualities that mark him as distinctive: the ability to produce an open, warm sound from the orchestra leaving plenty of air around the notes, and a gift for musical pacing that allows a composition to emerge as though from its own internal energy with no urging from the podium.
The “Hamlet Overture” began with a slow death march for the eponymous hero played in the strings with both incredible softness and incredible firmness, creating an effect that seized the audience’s attention immediately. The easy naturalness of Baleff’s phrasing drew the audience through Gade’s thoroughly conventional overture with a sense of inexorable progress. The beauty of the orchestra’s playing, particularly that of the strings, resulted in a very enjoyable experience despite the thinness of the material.
Carl Nielsen’s (1865-1931) Symphony No. 4, subtitled “The Inextinguishable” Op. 29 (1914-1916), has much more to offer both players and audiences and presents much greater challenges than Gode’s potboiler. Nielsen was self-taught and through dint of much hard work and ambition acquired a thorough knowledge of composition and orchestration. His six symphonies, therefore, contain a great deal of intellectual substance and show a high level of skill.
Where the Fourth Symphony falls short, however, is in the weakness of a quality that lies at the base of all great music making: the ability to express both simple and complex thoughts and feelings by arranging musical pitches. This gift came so easily to Mozart, Prokofiev, John Adams and all other composers we consider great. This seems in the Fourth Symphony of Nielsen to be beyond the composer’s grasp. Phrases or passages start with promise, only to veer off in an unrelated direction or die in a colorless, arid transition. All of Baleff’s skill in pacing and transition could not compensate for this defect. However, the orchestra responded so brilliantly and so alertly to Nielsen’s many demands, and the richness of sound they produced under Baleff’s direction was so thrilling, that the audience greeted the end of the symphony with enthusiastic shouts of approval.
No such problems afflicted the performance of the piece that closed the first half of the program: Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, in which Baleff and the orchestra were joined by the brilliant Chinese pianist, Fei-Fei Dong. Her pleasant and modest manner conceals an iron determination to acquire a technique of transcendental brilliance.
In Baleff she found an ideal partner, one who has the same gift of allowing a phrase to speak fully and to give enough time regardless of tempo to achieve maximum expression. The very opening appearance of the piano, which is ordinarily taken as a simple flourish of octaves and arpeggios, was in the hands of Dong an expressive and moving experience. So it proved throughout the performance: Passages ordinarily considered subordinate, in her hands turn to pure poetry.
The exquisite melody in the last movement that concludes the piece is first introduced by the solo flute. It was performed on this occasion by Principal Bruce Bodden with his characteristic beauty of tone and poignant simplicity before it was taken up by the piano. In Baleff, Dong found a collaborator capable of achieving the same expressive plasticity of phrasing of which she is a master.
In case any doubt remained as to the power of her technique, Dong performed as an encore a famously demanding fantasy on the Turkish March from Mozart’s C major Sonata No. 11, K331 by the virtuoso Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos. In the space of a few minutes, Volodos includes virtually every technical challenge Franz Liszt lays out in his “Transcendental Etudes,” and then some.
One could watch the faces of the orchestra members listening to the encore change from respectful attention to delight, and finally to incredulous amazement as Dong threaded her way through the thicket of difficulties in this witty and staggeringly difficult piece.
A recording of this program will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Monday on Spokane Public Radio, 91.1 FM.