Review: André Watts with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore Music Center

André Watts brought an ecstatic audience to its feet after his magnificent performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. Playing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore under the baton of Robert Spano, Watts demonstrated both blazing romanticism and tempered delicacy, hallmarks of this former prodigy who, as a 16-year-old, was introduced to the world by Leonard Bernstein in 1963. Now over 70, Watts is still in full command of his enormous musical gifts.

Rachmaninoff dedicated his now-famous concerto to the psychiatrist who coaxed him out of a severe depression following the failed premiere of the composer’s first symphony. Premiered in 1901, the concerto’s initial success has never faded. Watts’ sensitive and lush interpretation of the work stirred a wide range of emotions among his listeners, from romantic yearning to the aching melancholy of loss.  His magisterial chords and exceptionally strong yet light touch on the piano’s highest notes gave full voice to the composer’s enduring work. Spano and the orchestra worked deftly with Watts to weave together a lovely performance punctuated by haunting flute, clarinet, oboe, and viola solos that introduce the concerto’s most magnificent and well-known themes.

Particularly affecting was Watts’ virtuosity in recapitulating the themes introduced in the first movement, and his flawless work with the orchestra in realizing the full glory of the gorgeous third movement.

Watts’ appearance crowned an exceptionally well-balanced and interesting program by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The evening began with contemporary composer Christopher Theofanidis’ intoxicating Dreamtime Ancestors, a three-movement tone poem based on Australian aboriginal creation myths integral to ‘dreamtime,’ a time out of time during which we can connect to our ancestors and our descendants all at once.

The first movement, “Songlines,” features cellos and basses which, explains Theofanidis, “continues to weave throughout the movement, with melodies and shapes emerging from the line.” The two subsequent movements, entitled “Rainbow Serpent” and “Each Stone Speaks a Poem,” furthers the ideas of dreamtime in recalling ancient myths about the creation of the surface of the earth and the idea that even the most seemingly inert objects have poetry and meaning within.

Theofanidis gives splendid voice to these myths with this gorgeous piece that seems to shimmer, revealing hitherto unseen worlds suffused with brightness, insight, and connection during the hypnotic first two movements. In the third movement, the melodic lines are repeated while the composer gently bring us back to a more familiar world that is inevitably a bit darker and more percussive.

Commissioned by New Music for America Consortium, Dreamtime Ancestors was first performed in 2015 and will be played by orchestras in all 50 states. Theofanidis joined Robert Spano on stage to celebrate the successful first performance of this piece by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Also on the program was Edward Elgar’s Falstaff, another tone poem premiered in 1913. Like Rachmaninoff, Elgar, too, suffered from bouts of depression. The tonic in this case was not psychiatric treatment, however, but a trip to Italy astutely recommended by the composer’s wife. After a stay in Naples, Elgar, always a lover of Shakespeare, was inspired to write about Falstaff’s depiction in Henry IV, Parts One and Two.  The result was a lively and moving character study of Shakespeare’s comic/tragic figure from his early days as Prince Hal’s bawdy pal, through his nostalgic recollections of his youthful service as a page, to his ultimate rejection by Hal, who ascended to the English throne as Henry V.

Elgar moves the story along through a series of themes associated with each of the characters as they evolve like Hal from part-time miscreant to noble monarch, and Falstaff, whose undisciplined life leads him to ruin. Under Spano’s expert direction, this lovely work is carried along first by bright and sensitive work of the string section and later by the woodwinds and brass. The composer considered it his finest orchestral piece, but it has not become a popular favorite and is infrequently performed. Bravo to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for making this piece part of a memorable evening!

Running Time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.

André Watts performed on Saturday, November 18, 2017 at The Music Center at Strathmore — 5301 Tuckerman Lane in North Bethesda, MD. For tickets to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra upcoming performances, go to their website. For more information on André Watts, click here.


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