Some things take time to warm up. But when they do, they can get really hot.
It happened at the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra concert Saturday evening at the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center. Early on, guest conductor Christopher James Lees seemed cautious, sticking strictly to tempos and entrances, avoiding emotional encouragement. But that changed in a hurry.
Piano soloist Alexander Schimpf as well, performing the Grieg piano concerto, went through a similar slow start. A few muddied runs at the outset colored the opening of the gorgeous concerto, but by the time the first movement cadenza was unleashed, Schimpf morphed into an engaged, thoughtful performing partner.
In the end, it was a lyrical and accessible opening to the NBSO season, which will provide more than the usual interest because of the year-long conductor audition that is taking place.
Lees is the first of the four finalists, not an enviable position. Nobody wants to be the first one called in to an interview from a crowded reception area.
But Lees set a high bar for his competition. It was a curiously slow start: he began with Adam Schoenberg’s fanciful “Finding Rothko,” a four-section suite built on inspiration from that artist’s paintings. Episodic and expressionistic, “Finding Rothko” offers multiple chances for dynamic adventures. Lees stuck to the basics, never missing a downbeat, signaling every entrance, but leaving possibilities for interpretive tension aside.
Not for long. Although it took Schimpf some time to find himself, he and Lees partnered ably with the Grieg concerto. The first movement did start with some blurry passages, and Schimpf seemed to bury his concentration after that in his instrument, without engaging his conductor or his onstage partners. For Lees’ part, certain instrumental sections—the cellos notably—played without conviction when offered solo chances.
That changed. The cadenza, its virtuosic flourishes blending with introspection, brought out the artist in Schimpf. The middle slow movement was painterly and lush, energetic at times, lyrical throughout.
The finale cannot be called hard-charging, but it was uplifting, and boldly played. Schimpf took risks, and succeeded. He was encouraged to encore, and did: more Grieg, the Notturno from his “Lyric Suite.”
Lees was fully engaged at this point, and after intermission Dvorak’s G minor symphony, No. 8, gave him all the emotional and musical opportunities he could want to explore a possible future relationship with the NBSO.
This playing clearly had a foundation in great preparation. All four movements hold affecting solo moments, and possibilities of ensemble interaction. Lees made sure that few of these opportunities were missed.
Particularly engaging was the third movement, a 3/8 tempo waltz. Lees took full advantage of the brisk triple time to bring outa swaying groove from the orchestra. It was an impressively confident reading of the movement, belying the single week of rehearsals the orchestra had with its potential maestro. The fanfare spirit that carries the work into the final movement showed similar engagement.
Multiple solos needed to be acknowledged, and Lees marched strategically straight toward principal flute Timothy Macri after the initial applause, warmly congratulating his playing.
The winds and horns excelled throughout the evening as well—horns especially, including principals at trumpet (Andrew Moreschi) and trombone (Seth Budahl), and principal horn Lauren Winter. Among the winds, joining Macri in multiple well-delivered solos, were principals Michael Mechanic (bassoon), Margo McGowan (clarinet) and Laura Shamu (oboe).
The NBSO’s next performance, featuring the second of this season’s conductor finalists, David Amado, will be Saturday, Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m. in the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center. For information and tickets visit www.nbsymphony.org or call the Z box office at 508-994-2900.
From the New Bedford Standard-Times, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016.