Thursday morning, on the eve of his 80th birthday, Jorge Mester conducted his penultimate concert of the 2014-2015 Louisville Orchestra season with two major Russian works.
To open the concert, the orchestra played Berlioz’s Roman Carnival with vigor and excitement, with some beautiful moments from the violas, and a tender English horn solo from Trevor Johnson. Ultimately, against the Prokofiev concerto and the Tchaikovsky symphony, the overture felt more like a necessary formality in the orchestra-concert formula than a genuine statement.
The third piano concerto of Sergei Prokofiev balances witty humor and profound rhetoric, and Prokofiev establishes this M.O. in the initial five minutes of the concerto. Pianist Robert Thies and the orchestra play equal roles, moving gracefully through sometimes quirky, sometimes elegant tunes. There is always something interesting to hear because Prokofiev is always saying something interesting. Even in the transitions — when the music is leading us to an important moment — we find curiosities and gems.
Thies brought an unassuming stage presence to Whitney Hall; lacking all the glitz, body and facial contortions common in soloists. Instead, he allowed Prokofiev’s music to exude personality and affectation. His enthusiasm for this third concerto was belied only by the tiniest grin during his first bow.
Soloist and orchestra were effortless and fluid, with a sparkling urgency throughout. But it was the middle movement, a set of theme and variations, that felt surreal. Here is a composer who is improvising, inviting the orchestra to interject and punctuate, and Thies’ ability to be unobtrusive allowed Prokofiev to be present, as though he had opened a portal to the moment of creation.
Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s final Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique,” premiered just nine days before his death, is the masterpiece we hope to hear again and again. Mester and orchestra, returning to a work they’ve performed many times, didn’t let their comfort with the notes impair a clear understanding and delivery of the music. Even at its most brooding, Mester didn’t hesitate to move the music forward. The strings were rich and resonant, and woodwind principals Marilyn Nije and Matthew Karr each gave poetic solos in the first movement.
The second movement, a sort of peg-leg waltz, was charming. Only in the final minutes did the waltz unhinge slightly. The stately third movement was peppy and cheerful, slightly reminiscent of The Nutcracker (a score the LO becomes intimately familiar with each holiday season). The fatalistic last movement, more tenebrous than the first, points to the inevitable and leaves us with questions without answers. Regardless of the Pathétique’s actual meaning or message, Tchaikovsky’s final symphony continues to speak profoundly and personally, and fresh performances like Thursday morning’s allow for that introspection.
As evidenced in this concert, and recent performances of Brahms and Elgar, this is a romantic orchestra, with a penchant for emotionally robust works. Ideally, an orchestra can play any period (baroque, classical, contemporary, etc) with equal authority, but the true colors of this band are showing.
The Louisville Orchestra presents this concert again at 8 p.m. Friday in Whitney Hall.
Daniel Gilliam is the program director for Classical 90.5 WUOL, part of Louisville Public Media.