New conductor shows his versatility, finesse

Inon Barnatan
The Register-Guard

By Terry McQuilkin

In the second program of his inaugural season with the Eugene Symphony on Thursday evening, music director Danail Rachev demonstrated his versatility by leading the orchestra in performances of two works from the classical era, contrasted with an emotionally charged symphony from the late Romantic period. And the conductor proved himself equally at home with both styles.

Rachev opened the program at the Hult Center with the overture to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” in a performance characterized by cleanly defined melodic lines, nicely balanced chords in the winds and a fine sense of motion.

This was followed by the first installment of the orchestra’s cycle of all five piano concertos by Ludwig van Beethoven. The concertos are being presented in chronological order this season; thus Thursday’s concert featured the Concerto No. 2 in B-flat (the second concerto really antedates the first). Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan delivered a deliciously clear and subtle reading of the work. His playing in the fast movements certainly had authority and conviction, though there was often a noticeable degree of understatement in his playing, which in this early work seemed entirely appropriate.

Where Barnatan deviated from that approach was in the cadenza; though he used the composer’s written-out cadenza as the starting point, he eventually added new material, playing with a surprising degree of agitation and rubato. But the pianist returned to a quieter and more inward-looking approach in the Adagio. The notes almost evanesced at times, yet the expressive thread remained in place throughout.

The rollicking finale demands a healthy dose of extroversion, and the 30-year-old pianist satisfied that need with flair and panache. Throughout the concerto, Rachev and the orchestra provided well-balanced and sympathetic support.

Following intermission, the conductor turned to Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, a work that shows the Finnish composer’s distinctive way of organizing large forms, as well as his genius for using timbres to help define the music’s structure. The conductor’s challenge is to mold what can seem like a disparate string of ideas and an ever-changing palette of colors into a logical and coherent narrative.

On the whole, Rachev succeeded wonderfully. While there were occasional transitions that were not as subtle as they needed to be, I continually marveled at the finesse demonstrated by the ensemble, as the orchestral sonorities changed and as thematic ideas were passed from one section to another.

The piece demands a great deal of richness of sound. That doesn’t mean loud playing, but instead a kind of penetrating intensity that I haven’t always been able to hear from the Eugene Symphony’s strings. I heard what I was hoping for on Thursday evening, in the swelling unison passages and even in the pizzicato runs so characteristic of Sibelius’ music.

The music also requires a particular level of involvement from the brass, to which Sibelius assigned a lot of the melodic material. The playing needs to be forceful, confident and focused, and the symphony’s brass section brought to the work both dynamism and balance. It is a pleasure to hear newly appointed principal trumpeter Sarah Viens, who is continuing the orchestra’s tradition of having an extraordinary musician in that chair.

Sibelius favored woodwinds in their low registers, and the various members of this section played with expressive warmth. In particular, principal oboist Kelly Gronli brought lovely shape to her plaintive solo passages in the third movement and elsewhere.