Weiss, 17, plays Shostakovich with BSO; Music review


Orion Weiss, a last-minute replacement for Andre Watts as soloist in last week's performances by the Baltimore Symphony and guest conductor Jeffrey Tate of Shostakovich's Concerto No. 2, is already a fine pianist and has the potential to be a great one. He has a beauty of sound, a crisp command of rhythm, a fantastic ability to get over the keys and an elegance that permits notes to roll deliciously off his fingers.

This 17-year-old, a student at Hawken High School in Lyndhurst, Ohio, has received superb training from several distinguished pianists, including Paul Schenly and Serge Babayan, at the Cleveland Institute of Music. But Weiss still has a lot to learn about the Shostakovich Second Concerto -- at least as I understand the piece and as, based on his recordings of it, the composer did.

Musicians should work out their interpretations without recourse to recordings -- unless those recordings happen to be by the composer himself. While the interpretation of the composer -- even if he happens to be as fine a pianist as Shostakovich was -- is not the only way to play a piece, it still is an important source of information.

Weiss may already have listened to Shostakovich's own recordings and decided, as many musicians familiar with them have, that the composer played his own music too fast for its own good. But -- in the first movement, at least -- Weiss is even slower than the current norm. In the performance I heard Saturday night, he played the first movement in 8 minutes 11 seconds -- two minutes more than Shostakovich typically took.

In the composer's own steely, mechanically driven performances, the principal theme of the first movement can be described, to borrow Jan Bedell's phrase in the BSO program book, "[as] a cocky toy-soldier march, full of flourishes." At his moderate tempo, Weiss' interpretation did not convey such parodistic energy, instead endowing the music with a grandeur that suggested the 19th-century romantic concertos, whose heroic rhetorical gestures Shostakovich is poking fun at. Weiss was more successful in the slow movement, in which he lingered romantically without turning the music into kitsch, and in the finale, which he delivered with considerable energy and good-natured humor.

Despite some shaky moments of ensemble in the first movement, Tate and the musicians accompanied Weiss competently.

The conductor's hand was a little too heavy for Grieg's "Two Norwegian Dances," which opened the program. But, after intermission, he delivered an eloquent performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 5.

Like Otto Klemperer, one of his musical heroes, Tate is at his best in meditative, spacious works. This makes him (as Klemperer was) a successful conductor of Bruckner -- and, as he demonstrated on this occasion, also of Vaughan Williams.

In his ability to modulate between restrained lyricism and passionate outbursts, Tate seemed to combine some of the virtues of great Vaughan Williams interpreters such as Adrian Boult and John Barbirolli. The beautiful playing he drew from the orchestra, the precision of his dynamics and phrasing, and his ability to sustain tension and emotional force, particularly in the visionary slow movement, were most impressive. They sufficed to convince this doubting Thomas that Vaughan Williams deserves a place -- alongside Sibelius, Nielsen and Shostakovich -- among this this century's greatest symphonists.

Pub Date: 3/22/99

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