Review: Chattanooga Symphony performance spectacular

Review: Chattanooga Symphony performance spectacular

April 9th, 2015 by By Mel R. Wilhoit in Life Entertainment

Kayoko Dan conducts a Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra rehearsal at the Tivoli Theater in Chattanooga.

Photo by Maura Friedman /Times Free Press.

What a difference a month makes for those of us attending the Chattanooga Symphony: March was cold and blustery and ever threatening snow while April beckons all (except pollen sufferers) outside with its warm, inviting weather. And what a beautiful evening in the Scenic City with Redbud and Bradford Pears all abloom, welcoming concert goers to the Tivoli Theater on Thursday evening for another program of classical music as conducted by Maestro Kayoko Dan.

The concert opened with "Tragic Overture, Op. 81" by Johannes Brahms, the second of two single-movement symphonic works he produced almost back-to-back. The first was the clever "Academic Festival Overture," composed upon receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Breslau in which he took songs popular among university students and transformed them into a mock-serious orchestral composition.

The "Tragic Overture" contrasts the lightness of his former work with an exploration of darker musical issues. Like Brahms' other music, it is not programmatic; that is, it does not tell a story or represent any specific events. It is simply shadowy and dramatic music, representing only itself. Comparing the two, Brahms claimed, "one laughs while the other cries."

This work, which serves as an effective concert opener, is cast in the somber key of d-minor and falls into three sections: fast, moderate, and tranquil. It was premiered on December 26, 1880.

Thursday's performance was nothing less than spectacular. Bold chords announced its menacing presence as the string section produced rich textures and sensitive playing. Kayoko Dan guided the ensemble with well-modulated phrases that were beautifully paced. This was a jewel of a performance and first-class Brahms. Bravo.

In addition to being a genius, Mozart was also prolific—he could readily crank out the compositions when needed. And because the composer was often in desperate need of cash, he turned out 27 concerti for piano and orchestra during his short life. Most of these were written for benefit concerts—for the benefit of Mozart--who got to pocket any money left over after paying concert expenses for the hall, advertising and musicians.

The "Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466" is, like "Tragic Overture," also in d-minor and is often credited with revealing Mozart as an early Romantic (instead of Classical era) composer with his unusual (for the times) use of the minor key, helping to establish d-minor as the key of darkness and tragedy. The work's popularity has all but been assured by its inclusion at the conclusion and final credits of the 1984 award-winning movie "Amadeus" about the composer's rivalry with Salieri.

The guest soloist for the concerto reflects a trend of the last few decades wherein earlier performers with European and Jewish musical pedigrees (Wikipedia lists 129 under Jewish classical pianists) have given way to a stream of performers with ties to China (Wikipedia lists 31 with Lang Lang being the most famous).

Qing Jiang was born in Zhenjiang, China, and is making her return to the CSO stage. She began studying piano with her mother at age three and made her American debut in 2000 at Arizona State University where she later studied, winning numerous awards and becoming acquainted with Kayoko Dan. She boasts a long list of awards and performances with major ensembles.

She graced the stage in a dazzling, long white gown that pooled up around her feet as she sat at the keyboard. Her performance was no less impressive. It was characterized by crystalline clarity, a deft touch, and highly expressive playing, delivered via an animated performance.

One of the highlights was the first-movement cadenza. Typical for concerti during this era, the cadenzas—designed to showcase the performer's improvisatory abilities—were not written down but were created on the spot. While Mozart did so at the first performance, he failed to commit it to music, providing a perfect excuse for later composers such as Hummel, Brahms and Busoni to try their hands. Beethoven is said to have favored this concerto above most of Mozart's works, not only performing it, but also composing a cadenza—the one most often performed today.

However on this occasion, Maestro Dan requested Qing Jiang to perform one composed by Clara Wieck, the famous concert pianist, composer, and wife of composer Robert Schumann. That turned out to be an inspired choice as this extensive and technically demanding work really showed off the performer's musical chops.

The middle and final movements were no less impressive and demonstrated Qing Jiang to be a performer of the first order as the musical demands ranged from delicate to athletic. This was Mozaart at its best, and a standing ovation was rewarded by a solo encore: Schumann's quiet and introspective "Traumerie" ("Dreaming"). Brava!

"Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op 61" by Robert Schumann was first performed in late 1846 under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn, directing the famous Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Although the composer had begun work in December of 1845, depression and poor health slowed progress.

Periods of depression had been evident as early as 1827 with the composer attempting suicide in 1833 by leaping from a fourth-floor window; his diary sadly records his fear of going mad. Although numerous breakdowns characterized the next few years, his marriage to Clara Wieck in 1840 renewed his spirits and his musical output. However, by 1844 he couldn't sleep and was tormented by a loud ringing in his ears, and he wrote no music for an entire year. Eventually he began to study Bach and composed smaller pieces reflecting his new knowledge. This C major symphony was the first large-scale work he attempted after his breakdown, and it is surprisingly positive in spirit—rather like "Beethoven's Fifth" with its triumph over fate.

It contains the standard four movements. The first is a rather undistinguished offering but is followed by a lively Scherzo containing a four-note motive built on Bach's name. It is a scintillating dance that blazed all the way to the finish. The third movement is elegiac in character with a soaring theme, worthy of a Russian movie soundtrack. The final movement is an ebullient statement of Schumann's hope for a better future.

For this performance the ensemble played impressively, and Kayoko Dan definitely scored a musical trifecta with three strong offerings, solidifying her success in continuing a remarkable musical tradition, combined with creative and thoughtful programming. Bravi tutti.