Fiery Tones of Fall

Inon Barnatan
Danbury News Time

By Courtenay Caublé

The Ridgefield Symphony’s first 2009-2010 subscription concert last Saturday evening to a near-capacity audience at the Ridgefield High School Auditorium was an auspicious harbinger of things yet to come. RSO Music Director Gerald Steichen’s varied program included Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, and Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major.

With its four contrasting sections, the William Tell Overture provides a rich orchestral showcasing; and Maestro Steichen’s alternately expressive and fiery leadership elicited a polished response from his musicians. Principal cellist Melissa Westgate’s solo work and the whole cello section’s supportive playing were beautiful in the languid opening section, and individual sectional and solo playing elsewhere was high in quality too, all the way through to the familiar and rousing march music of the finale. Noticeably enhanced strength and focus in the first and second violin sections were also particularly remarkable, both in the overture and elsewhere throughout the concert.

Whatever Sibelius’s intended programmatic underpinnings might or might not have been, his Second Symphony is a masterfully integrated musical work, impressively organized around an opening three-note motif that repeatedly reappears and ultimately blossoms into the finale’s dramatic theme. Nevertheless, the work’s frequent dramatic contrasts can make the musical flow seem disjointed in less capable hands than those of Maestro Steichen, whose fine grasp of the score both held everything together and defined the music’s emotional progression. The orchestra was splendid too, with especially fine woodwind and brass playing, both solo and sectional.

Beethoven begrudgingly allowed another pianist to give a public performance of one of his concertos– at least an initial one – on only one occasion, when total deafness prevented him from premiering his final (“Emperor”) concerto. But playing on a wonderful Blüthner concert grand with a beautifully graduated scale and flexible tonal range, the equally wonderful young Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan gave a performance that I think would have made Beethoven smile.

With a delicacy of touch that in no way compromised the dash and technical challenges of the music, Barnatan – in perfect collaboration with Maestro Steichen – made the most of the Piano Concerto No. 3’s myriad moods. Each movement was impressive in its own way – the first, with its somber overtones, florid adornments, and impressively dramatic solo cadenza, the profoundly introspective second movement largo, and the uniquely Beethovenian final rondo. Everywhere else, of course, but especially in the finale, Barnatan’s wide dynamic and tonal range (all the way from delicacy to fire), his poise and focus, and his sensitive articulation were always in evidence. The playful rondo theme came through as both sprightly and delicate, with even the easily executed musical pyrotechnics in keeping with the mood. It was a splendid performance.

I personally hope to hear more from this fine artist.