Review: A night of firsts as Mei-Ann Chen conducts Colorado Symphony

Mei-Ann Chen
The Denver Post

By Sabine Kortals

It was a night of firsts at Boettcher Concert Hall.

Conductor Mei-Ann Chen debuted with the Colorado Symphony last weekend, and the orchestra's own Courtney Hershey Bress was the featured soloist in a rarely heard work for harp.

The name Carl Oberthür probably doesn't ring a bell with most people. But the German, Romantic-era composer was prolific in his time, and his Concertino for Harp and Chamber Orchestra spotlights the capabilities of the instrument in great sweeps of melody.

On Saturday, Bress — the orchestra's principal harpist — demonstrated terrific technical aptitude and dynamic range, especially in the cadenza toward the end of the 20-minute work.

But what made the performance emotionally resonant was a natural synchronicity between Bress and Chen. The two women share an ardent interpretation of the work, which was particularly palpable in the slow, middle movement. And Chen's careful balance between the orchestral accompaniment and the delicate sound of the harp was superb.

That said, Bress' tempos were uneven, and a few of her passages weren't entirely crisp or coherent. But Chen skillfully kept soloist and orchestra together, bringing the piece to a solid and satisfying close.

The highlight of the evening came after intermission when Chen took the reins in Camille Saint-Saëns' demanding Symphony No. 3. The so-called "Organ Symphony" — featuring the distinct sound of the pipe organ in two of its four sections — is replete with virtuosic passages and sophisticated orchestral writing. A thematic complement to the other works on the program, the score also includes florid phrases for two and four hands at the piano.

Conducting sans score, Chen's forceful, fearless approach to the exclamatory work was riveting. Confident, commanding and entirely absorbed in Saint-Saëns' every musical nuance, she drew out from the already-fine orchestra the most concise and committed performance in recently memory.

The program opened with one of Rossini's greatest hits, the overture to his opera "The Italian Girl in Algiers." Here, Chen emphasized the slow, dramatic introduction, ensuring an effective contrast to the predominantly spirited work that she directed with energy and exactitude.

Icing on the cake was principal oboist Peter Cooper's luminous performance of a lyrical solo passages, bringing substance to the otherwise frothy overture.