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Teenage conductor Ilyich Rivas makes impressive subscription concert debut with BSO

No one knows what the future of classical music holds. There may well be fewer orchestras, fewer everything. Smaller audiences, too, of course. But there will be no lack of talent. Conservatories remain full and will be sending out into the world a remarkable diversity of gifted folks for a long time to come. One of them is Ilyich Rivas, the 17-year-old conductor from Venezuela who made his professional U.S. debut with the Atlanta Symphony in 2009 and is now in his second year with the Baltimore Symphony, as recipient of the BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellowship.

Rivas just made his BSO subscription concert debut with a big program that yielded considerable rewards. On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall, Rivas demonstrated, first of all, abundant self-confidence, an essential requirement. He offered every indication that he is to the podium born. More importantly, he didn’t just give efficient downbeats and cues; he made music.

The program was a clever riff on the whole youth thing – Brahms’ salute to college campus life, “Academic Festival Overture”; one of Beethoven’s early masterworks, Piano Concerto No. 2 (actually his first, but published late); the “Blumine” movement that was originally part of Mahler’s First Symphony; and the Symphony No. 1 penned by Shostakovich at the age of 18.

I was most impressed with how

Rivas handled the brilliant Shostakovich work. He brought out the snappy humor and rabble-rouser quality of the first two movements with considerable punch. Then, starting with the hammered piano chords toward the end of the scherzo, the conductor tapped effectively into the bittersweet, even ominous force that haunts the remainder of the symphony.

It was quite an arresting performance. Rivas enjoyed a committed response from the BSO, which, a smudge or two aside, played with great clarity and color. The most dramatic moments found the orchestra pouring on the tonal force. Solo efforts by concertmaster Jonathan Carney, principal oboist Katherine Needleman, and associate cellist Chang Woo Lee proved especially eloquent. (It’s unfortunate that the BSO lost its valued principal cellist to the Cincinnati Symphony last year, but the upside is that we’ve had several opportunities now to be reminded of what a sensitive player Lee is.)

Rivas had Mahler’s “Blumine” flowing a bit too fast and in a mostly metronomic fashion, but the moonlit beauty of the music came through. Andrew Balio’s trumpet solo had a serene radiance. The Brahms overture got a sturdy, spirited workout, aided by rich string tone.

The Beethoven concerto made a fine vehicle for the soloist Markus Groh. He made it easy to hear the lingering shadow of Mozart in the music, but the stamp of Beethoven as well. The German pianist’s delicate articulation in the first movement dialogue between keyboard and woodwinds was among the highlights; Groh’s phrasing of the Adagio’s astonishing coda, with its haunting suggestion of a trumpet’s nighttime call, was wonderfully sensitive. Rivas offered smooth, attentive partnering and drew fine playing from the BSO throughout the concerto.

Groh was enthusiastically recalled to the stage and obliged with an encore, Schumann’s “Traumerei,” delivered with admirable subtlety and warmth.

The evening affirmed validated the buzz that has been building around Rivas. He certainly has a lot in his favor, including top management and increasingly high-profile bookings. I look forward to hearing him in performance again. As his career advances, I hope he’ll correct a couple of little protocol slips that were observed on Thursday – taking too many bows himself before remembering the orchestra; and, at one point, walking ahead of the guest artist. Like I said, little things, but, as in so much of life, little things mean a lot.


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