Pianist makes a blazing debut with RPO

Christopher Seaman
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

By Stuart Low

A Californian pianist's cool virtuosity swept away Thursday's wintry gusts howling outside the Eastman Theatre.

Soloist Andrew von Oeyen made a blazing debut with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, brushing aside the considerable technical challenges of Liszt's Concerto No. 1. But there was plenty of suspense as he sat down at the Steinway: Could this lanky, long-legged musician get near enough to the keyboard to play?

After some careful maneuvering, he brought his hands within striking distance. And the operative word is "striking": This showpiece requires jackhammer power from the very beginning. Liszt broke piano strings and made female fans swoon when he performed the concerto.

The Eastman Theatre aisles are too narrow for comfortable swooning, but 26-year-old von Oeyen generated excitement on his own terms. He dispatched thundering double octaves and singing lines with ease, though he often lost rhythmic propulsion in lyrical solos. At times his demeanor was so relaxed that he seemed to be ordering another round of hot-buttered toast.

Von Oeyen reportedly swims three times a week to keep up his stamina for this kind of pianistic acrobatics. He must have needed every lap to get through the Liszt, which won two curtain calls.

After intermission, Music Director Christopher Seaman returned to the podium for an exuberant account of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. This interpretation was in a heroic mold, with beautifully gauged tempos and sharp dynamic contrasts. The blend of meticulous detail and vigor recalled the Beethoven performances of former RPO maestro Erich Leinsdorf.

Seaman sailed directly from the boisterous first movement to the somber Allegretto, accentuating the abrupt shift of mood. He gave a restless edge to the Allegretto's grief, never allowing it to relax its urgency.

By contrast, the finale's obsessive rhythmic pulse sometimes became mechanical, generating a sense of thumping jubilation. The RPO's playing throughout was superlative.

The concert began with Irving Fine's seldom-heard Toccata concertante. Former Bostonians may remember Fine as the Harvard Glee Club's conductor and as a high-profile music professor at Brandeis University. He was a close associate of Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland, but somehow never achieved their renown.

The Toccata is an engaging curtain-raiser that can match any of those composers for elegant craftsmanship. With its jaunty rhythms and spiky sonorities, it strongly recalls Stravinsky's neoclassical vein. But unlike Stravinsky's doctored Russian folk tunes, Fine's melodies are homegrown and altogether winning.