South Bend was just treated to a performance of Brahms 2nd by 2009 Van Cliburn Gold Medalist Haochen Zhang.
SOUTH BEND — 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.
Maestro Tsung Yeh, currently in his 28th year as music director and chief conductor of the SBSO, led his musicians in a satisfying concert of music by Ottorino Respighi and Johannes Brahms. Like so many of Yeh’s programs over the years, the show was a blend of popular fare and deep musical challenges.
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.
The Brahms concerto in B-flat is built on a massive structure in four movements. Most concertos have a straightforward, fast-slow-fast three-movement scheme, but Brahms added an extra fast scherzo second movement. Over the course of a 47-minute-long performance Saturday, Yeh held his musicians at full attention and maximum intensity throughout, as they negotiated the composition’s towering architecture with careful diligence.
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.