Oh, Zhu!

LUCAS HESS/Durango Herald

Guest pianist Zhu Wang received a standing ovation after his rendition of Mozartís Piano Concerto No. 21 on Saturday night at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College.

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

Saturday night, 15-year-old pianist Zhu Wang played Mozartís beloved Concerto No. 21 as if he were twice Ė or three times Ė his age. Born in Yueyang City, Hunan Province, China, in 1997, Zhu plays with the flair, sensitivity and discipline of a well-seasoned soloist.

Only a month ago, the youngest performer in the Hilton Head International Young Artist Competition, Zhu walked away with the top prize. Credit San Juan Symphony Artistic Director Arthur Post for bringing Zhu here. Given his highly musical performance, itís no wonder our local audience erupted with whistles, shouts and robust applause. Next week, Post announced, he and Zhu will repeat this endeavor with the Hilton Head Symphony. No doubt another audience explosion is in store.

Zhu is a student at the middle school of Shanghai Conservatory. Heís already won a backpack full of prizes, and weíre likely to hear more of him in the future.

After the long orchestral introduction of Mozartís concerto, Zhuís brilliant technique became immediately apparent. He set forth a dazzling array of fast passages that could easily have pushed Post into an unwanted tempo. But Zhu and Post held a stately pace throughout. Zhu expertly contrasted the two opening themes, an understated military-style march and a playful filigree, with seriousness and sparkle.

When the orchestra paused to open the door for the first movementís cadenza, Zhu displayed his technical mastery and deep sense of lyricism. Beginning with motifs echoing the movementís architecture,Zhu dazzled with cross-handed agility and then streamed into Romantic territory, a little Rachmaninoff in the midst of Mozart. Thatís what cadenzas are for Ė a mini solo, a riff on the musical material, in the midst of a great orchestral structure.

Zhuís cadenza seemed a fitting preparation for the melancholic Andante, the second movement made famous as the film theme for Elvira Madigan. Neither Zhu nor Post let the interpretation slip into a maudlin gauze. Instead, all the musicians gave the Andante a clean reading with just a touch of delicacy and longing.

The Allegro vivace assai is a mock-serious romp where contrasts make all the difference. Zhuís very short power-cadenza propelled the final race to the finish.

With his youthful energy and assured technique, the soloist could have pressured the orchestra into a feverish tempo. But Zhu, Post and the orchestra had already agreed upon a steady, but natural momentum. And it all led to a clean, crisp, thrilling finish.

The concert opened quietly with an odd choice of overture. In 1913, English composer Frederick Delius wrote a little tone poem about the first sounds of spring. Embedded in a gauzy texture of a morning mist, you could hear a faint, low cuckoo, played by clarinetist Anne Sanchez.

Only seven minutes long, this whiff of British impressionism quickly gave way to the clear heart of the concert, Mozartís concerto. The final half celebrated spring with Beethovenís Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral.

The orchestraís somewhat hesitant beginning, with its tricky, immediate retard, soon gave way to a robust and beautiful rendering of this big work.

The second movement in particular brought out the idealized nature of Beethovenís vision of the countryside. Dreamy passages floated over and through the hall like a benediction.

But Beethoven being Beethoven, the final movement delivered on the composerís infamous contrasts. In a magnificent musical thunderstorm, the climax crashed through with Jonathan Lattaís sudden propulsive blows to the timpani; the strings providing lightning strikes with sharp octave jumps. All fury broke loose, then the storm subsided into lush unison passages in the strings echoing earlier themes.

Beethovenís Sixth was a fitting conclusion to a very satisfying evening and good musical year.

jreynolds@durangoherald.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.

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