Review: Zhang, South Bend Symphony Orchestra convincing with Brahms

South Bend Tribune

On Thursday, the South Bend Symphony Orchestra announced its list of five finalists to fill the soon-to-be-vacant position of music director.

On Saturday at the Morris Performing Arts Center, it was abundantly clear that the winning candidate is going to inherit a well-trained ensemble.

Two of Respighi's Roman warhorses — "Pines of Rome" and "Fountains of Rome" — are fairly safe crowd-pleasers, evocative tone poems that paint lovely sonic pictures. They served as a fine second-half tonic after the opening Brahms set, centered around his Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major: a gargantuan composition, packed with fascinating ideas and whopping technical demands for conductor, orchestra and soloist alike.

The soloist for the Brahms was Haochen Zhang, winner of the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Although both Zhang and Yeh have extensive repertoires, the Brahms piece was a fundamentally new experience for both of them.

Early on in the piece, the pianist battles the orchestra for control of the main melodic themes, and sparring partners Zhang and Yeh dueled masterfully. However, Brahms doesn't linger very long with any typical Romantic soloist-versus-orchestra dramatics. The soloist plays a variety of roles, making this concerto more of an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. Zhang's control and concentration were unwavering.

Zhang's technique was up to the task of the most punishing runs — especially some sequences where he had to play both very quietly and very fast — and when he needed to come smashing down on some giant stacks of chords, he did so with authoritative vigor and flair.

The pianist kept a close eye on Yeh during almost all of the sections where the piece practically becomes a symphony with piano accompaniment. At such times, Zhang subsumed his instrument into the mix just perfectly, becoming another rich color under Yeh's command.

The ensemble players only rarely ran into rough patches, and the intimate chamber-music interlude in the slow third movement was well-balanced, if a little stiff.

Zhang, Yeh and the SBSO took on a sizable responsibility when they decided to tackle the Brahms piece, and they pulled off quite a feat in presenting the work in such a convincing manner.

Zhang returned for an encore, and drew some good-natured laughter from the crowd as he tore into the familiar Mozart "Turkish March." From the ramped-up tempo and the introduction of some alien harmonies, it became clear that this was something beyond the Rondo alla Turca from Mozart's Piano Sonata No.11. It was a special, torturous arrangement by Arcadi Volodos, which requires the pianist to commit comically grotesque acts of virtuosity.

It was a refreshingly unabashed concession to the notion that a prize-winning virtuoso should demonstrate some of the outer limits of keyboard technique in a razzle-dazzle pyrotechnics display. Zhang dashed it off with style and charming showmanship.

Read the rest of the review here