Pianist, conductor deliver passionate symphony performance

02.28.11
Jonathan Biss
Houston Chronicle

By Everett Evans

Oscars? What Oscars?

For anyone at Jones Hall Sunday, it's unlikely Hollywood's big night could surpass the electrifying performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 by Jonathan Biss and the Houston Symphony, under the inspired leadership of guest conductor James Gaffigan.

The program not only showcased the orchestra in top form, but demonstrated why Gaffigan and Biss are two of the most exciting young artists of a new generation carrying the grand tradition of classical music into the 21st century ablaze with their passion, rigorous musicianship and inspired interpretive flair.

Biss played Beethoven with flawless technique and a rare blend of feeling and fresh invention that made this classic, first heard in 1803, sound newborn. He made the most of the work's dramatic contrasts, with emphatic power in his forte and a super-delicate pianissimo. From his first entrance, one noted his distinctive way of articulating a phrase, the grace of his rolling arpeggios and dynamism of his trills — culminating in his masterful cadenza. He gave invigorating bounce and drive to the final movement, epitomized by the recurring phrase that seemed to leapfrog its ascent along the keyboard.

But nothing could top Biss' artistry in the middle Largo movement, which he invested with a grave beauty. From the stillness and simplicity of its opening phrase, Biss sustained the profound impact, allowing everyone present to hear what is eternal in Beethoven.

Gaffigan's conducting reflected his attentiveness both to the smallest detail and the overall architecture of multimovement works. For the Beethoven, he kept the orchestra intimately attuned to Biss' interpretive prowess, whether matching his poeticism in the Largo or giving more exuberant passages of the first and final movements the throbbing vitality that is the composer's hallmark.

A conductor who genuinely feels the music, Gaffigan showed an expressive style on the podium - the grace and fluidity of his gestures and body language reflected in the music. He also demonstrated an engaging manner, from his informative introductory remarks to his way of singling out individual musicians during curtain calls - not just pointing to them, but dashing through the ranks to shake their hands.

In Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 7, which closed the program, Gaffigan deftly shaped each movement and the entire work. The rendition proved the skill of the symphony's construction, while giving full rein to both its vitality and its lyricism. Gaffigan's choices had taste and intelligence - sometimes as simple as the slight hesitation before restating the third movement's main theme, or sustaining intensity by not pausing between the third and final movements.

From the opening measures, the orchestra played with vigor and precision, conveying the music's restless energy and drive. In the first movement's alternate lyrical theme, the string playing achieved the sweetness and warmth Dvorak's music seemed to draw from nature. From the lovely opening cello passage, the second movement exuded prayerful beauty. The buoyant Scherzo danced along with whirling vitality and graceful lilt. Gaffigan and the orchestra fully realized the vigor and harmonic richness of the expansive Finale, with imposing sound and overall power that made it a genuinely satisfying resolution.