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Pianist Stephen Hough, Grand Rapids Symphony: Uncomfortable to watch, but pleasant to hear Dvorak concerto

Joshua Weilerstein

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk 

GRAND RAPIDS, MI –Stephen Hough is a pianist for all seasons.

Be it the delicacy of Chopin and Saint-Saens or the might of Rachmaninoff and Liszt, the British pianist who's made four previous appearances with the Grand Rapids Symphony can play anything.

Remarkably, Hough can play Dvorak, too. Though it begs the question, with so much music available in the repertoire for piano and orchestra, why try?

The answer, for the very model of a modern Renaissance man, must be, because it's there.

Dvorak easily is among the top dozen or so of the greatest composers in the history of classical music. But you can love much of Dvorak's music and still not care for his Piano Concerto. Unless a pianist of Hough's caliber is playing it.

Guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein, recently assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and a rising star on the podium, joined the Grand Rapids Symphony for its first concerts of 2015.

Sadly, its usual audience did not on an evening during which the air temperature outside matched the ninth day of the year.

The Grand Rapids Symphony's Classical Series concert opened Friday evening with contemporary American composer Christopher Rouse's "Iscariot," an intricate, 12-minute work for orchestra, anchored by celeste, pitted against various sections of the orchestra.

It's not a musical portrait of Judas Iscariot, but it hints at betrayal. It's a deeply personal work; so much so that it's not entirely clear what Rouse intended in the slow-moving piece with a shrouded reference to a Bach chorale.

Weilerstein's reading was thoughtful, considered and managed. At times, by the composer's design, it's intense and uncomfortable to listen to.
Dvorak's Piano Concerto, conversely, was uncomfortable to watch. If you were listening with your eyes closed, it was a rather different experience.

Dvorak's only concerto for piano and orchestra, a youthful work comparatively speaking, is full of passionate, earthy, Bohemian bonhomie. It hints at a number of pieces Dvorak would go on to compose in the future. It comes off, not as an inferior work, but as the first draft of a piece the composer never got around to touching up.

Hough skillfully and set and reset his hands to make graceful music out of a gracelessly written piano score composed by a non-piano-playing composer.

Hough played lyrically, especially under the circumstances, yet with the heft to overcome the orchestral forces often thrown at him. A tricky cadenza at the end of the first movement was masterfully negotiated.

Though it felt as if both conductor and orchestra were getting to know the piece, what radiated from Hough's performance was a warmth and tenderness emerging from the awkwardness. In a lesser pianist's hands, it likely would have been more awkward than not.

Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 was just the opposite. Both conductor and orchestra were in firm command of Mendelssohn's symphony dubbed "Scottish."

Weilerstein's reading of the Mendelssohn was flowing and moved along lightly.

The 27-year-old musician from a distinguished family of musicians, proved to be engaging, even playful on the podium, conducting in great detail as needed, but also stepping back and letting the orchestra work its musical magic as well.

The opening movement was a grand exposition.

He focused much of his attention on the strings and little on the brass and winds, but Weilerstein drew attention to inner voices and often hidden nuances in the piece, making it a refreshing visit with an old friend.

His reading of the Mendelssohn was flowing and moved along lightly with a lively scherzo and a multi-faceted adagio with finely shaped phrases.

Though there isn't a wee bit of Celtic folk music in the piece, I imagine Scots anywhere would be pleased to claim the final movement played Friday evening as their own.