Oundjian, Ohlsson wrap New World season with grandeur

Garrick Ohlsson
South Florida Classical Review

By David Fleshler

Among the pleasures of concerts by the New World Symphony are the first-rate soloists and guest conductors that regularly come down to South Florida to perform with the ensemble. On the orchestra’s final program of the season, the orchestra welcomed the renowned American pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the highly regarded Toronto Symphony conductor Peter Oundjian for a concert of Beethoven and Rimsky-Korsakov Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami.

The highlight was a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, the Emperor. Ohlsson, a big man wearing a dark business suit, sat in front of the piano, shot his cuffs and nodded to Oundjian that he was ready. From the first majestic procession of notes, this was a performance of nobility and grandeur, with Ohlsson bringing an effortless technique, a big tone and musical integrity to the performance. It was neither a virtuoso frenzy of notes nor a dry and correct rendering, but rather an expansively conceived, energetically executed performance that was decidedly symphonic in scope.

Ohlsson delivered in the high-energy moments, such as the thumping descending scales in the left hand as the right develops the opening theme and the runs up and down the keyboard of the outer movements. But he also brought great delicacy to the performance, as in the quiet, minor-key second theme, played softly but rapped out with taut articulation or the ominous notes that lead up to the fortissimo return of the opening arpeggios.

Under Oundjian’s baton, the orchestra played with remarkable tightness and punch, with an orchestral sweep that showed no fear of covering up the soloist – which it didn’t – and providing an effective counterpoise to Ohlsson’s piano. Ohlsson is among the world’s best-known exponents of Chopin, and as an encore he performed the composer’s Waltz in E-flat Major, Op. 18, played in a lighter, brisker style than usual.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture led by Teddy Abrams, the orchestra’s conducting fellow. Aside from some ensemble imprecision in some of Beethoven’s hammer-like chords, it was a tight, dramatic performance.
For the final work of its 2010-2011 season, the orchestra performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a brilliant concert piece that gives all sections a chance to shine. Oundjian conducted in a manner that allowed the work’s sensuality to emerge naturally, from the surging energy of the sea music to the warm string playing that opened the slow movement.

He gave lots of room for individuality among the various solo instruments, particularly in the second movement, as bassoon, horn, flute, clarinet, and oboe took solo turns with distinctly different approaches to the music. Scheherazade contains some of the most extensive violin solos in the repertoire, and concertmaster Heidi Han played with particular flair as the music became more difficult, with secure chords and arpeggios at the close of the final movement.