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Concert review: Symphony Continues Masterworks Season of Surprises
By Timothy Tuller
October 16, 2019

The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra Masterworks concert series continued this weekend with “Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2,” a bold and generous program covering a wide range of musical styles.

The evening opened with “The Cunning Little Vixen” Suite by Czech composer Leoš Janáček. Rarely heard, the work draws on all manner of orchestral colors to depict a fairy tale world of animals and insects. Together with conductor Courtney Lewis’ exposition, it made for a charming opener.

The meat of the first half of the evening was Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s Symphony No. 4. This is an unorthodox bit of programming, but I have to give Lewis and the Jacksonville Symphony credit for placing such bold, modern piece against a beloved Romantic Brahms concerto. Written in 1992, just two years before Lutoslawski’s death at the age of 81, this work shows the unique musical voice of Lutoslawski and its most mature and refined. While Lutoslawki’s oeuvre is known to be challenging for performers and listeners alike, this late work is not forbiddingly so, making it a great introduction to the sometimes-impenetrable “pops and squeaks” world of mid-20th Century Formalism. Throughout the work, Lutoslawski coaxes a kaleidoscope of sounds from the orchestra, utilizing his trademark loose timing between players. The end result is an eerie and profound sonic experience perfect for the season.

Both conductor and orchestra evidenced great commitment in their rendering of this complex and unorthodox score. Playing was tight and there were several stand-out solo moments, not the least of which were some luminescent clarinet lines in the beginning. Its placement on the program also provided a crisp aesthetic counterpoint to the Brahms to come later in the evening.

After intermission, things swung about as far away from Lutoslawski on the musical spectrum as possible with the formidable Johannes Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat. A massive work in every sense, and as musically profound as any concerto in the repertoire, this is not a work to be taken lightly by orchestra, conductor or pianist. Fortunately, all three were more than up to the task this evening.

After a wonderfully rendered opening horn call by principal horn player Kevin Reid, guest soloist Natasha Paremski vigorously dug in, playing with the kind of full, big-boned sonority that is so essential to Brahms. She drew floods of tone out of the piano while never resorting to banging. Her musical and technical range was obvious, and while she had power in spades for all of Brahms’ big chordal and octave passagework, she also projected throughout the hall a warm, singing tone in the quieter moments.

This is well-trod repertoire indeed, but the orchestra showed no hints of complacency. The strings, in particular, were spot-on throughout with sure intonation and shimmering warmth. Although this is a piano concerto, one of the finest musical moments actually belongs to the cello in the beautiful solo that opens the third movement. Principal cellist Alexei Romanenko acquitted himself splendidly, playing with refined subtlety and expression.

“Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2,” a point-and-counterpoint of diverse musical styles and a showcase for both guest and home team virtuosic talent, continues the Masterworks season with heart firmly on sleeve and a flair for unexpected programming that elevates the whole above the sum of the parts.

Classical music writer Timothy Tuller is canon for music at St. John’s Cathedral.

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