Conductor, pianist inspire grandness

03.21.09
Jahja Ling
Columbus Dispatch

The Columbus Symphony continues to play in the major leagues this weekend with two guest artists who rightly earned international acclaim long ago.

Guest conductor Jahja Ling's professional career got its start in Ohio with an acclaimed debut leading the Cleveland Orchestra, with which he subsequently had a long and fruitful relationship.

And in the highly competitive realm of keyboard artists, there simply is no more important name than that of Emanuel Ax. Though Ax has performed in Columbus many times, one never tires of experiencing his genuine manner and sincere artistry. His performance was given added meaning last night because he has donated that appearance and tonight's to the orchestra, a magnanimous gesture.

Ling's leadership of Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 certainly brought out the finest from the players. Notable moments in the first movement, for example, included the gleeful high gestures from the flute and piccolo and impressive statements from the trombones and timpani.

Perhaps the one point with which to quibble in what was overall an outstanding reading was the overly deliberate tempo of the last movement, which dampened the music's natural sense of exuberance.

Brahms' concerto writing is always highly symphonic and never more so than in the Piano Concerto No. 2 -- with four movements, a truly big piece in every way. With Ax at the keyboard and Ling at the helm, last night's performance was a grand meeting of like minds, beginning with ideal, unhurried tempo choices for each movement. It was not a case of bringing the composer down to size, which would be the wrong goal in any case, but of stepping up to meet the mighty Brahms at his own grand level.

Ling's leadership produced rich playing from the orchestra beginning with a well-articulated opening solo from the horn. Ax found the perfect texture and intensity in playing that, while certainly conveying a sense of grandeur, consistently enunciated the pianist's particular point of view -- masterful, powerful, yet never strident.

Of the many special ways in which the pianist approached this great music, none was more appreciated last night than his beautiful, lyrical playing of the slow themes. They are among the composer's finest achievements and were given their special due by Ax's honest, sincere playing.