Sean Chen tackled, with an elegant yet plucky kind of youthful gusto, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s fan-fave Piano Concerto No. 2 at Saturday night’s Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra concert and painted the work with the lushness it deserved.
It was lushness aplenty, for sure, as the orchestra delivered two full-bodied symphonic, Romantic-era works thanks to a host of musicians performing.
The No. 2 is Rachmaninoff’s most famous piano concerto, a success at the outset, and it’s no wonder why.
It was written after a debilitating depression, supposedly in response to severe criticism of his work, then dedicated to the doctor, Nickolai Dahl, who helped Rachmaninoff find the light.
The result is a Victorian age, beautiful, lacy, emotionally full and dramatic composition.
And Chen owned it.
He is so fluid in his playing, with a springtime rain shower of notes gently falling in runs up and down the piano keys. Not that he doesn’t quickly move across the keys, as well. He sprinted across them many times during his performance.
There’s such a richness to his playing, echoed by the orchestra’s strings, with the WFSO this time around being helmed by Fouad Fakhouri, one of three finalist guest conductors vying to become the WFSO’s next music director/conductor.
Chen, the Crystal Medal winner (third place) in the 2013 Van Cliburn competition, also is a very crisp performer. He showed that tendency in the work’s third movement, the allegro scherzando.
He was particularly impressive in the first movement, in which he performs so soft, whisperlike, really, while accompanied by rich violins before slowly turning up the volume and the speed and insistence in the concerto and finally leading into the passionate second movement that exemplifies the Russian romantics. That second movement, by the way, has inspired many other musicians, including Eric Carmen on his 1970s hit “I Can’t Live.”
That first movement contrasts the finale, which is bombastic and boisterous and laden with virtuosic passages that Chen had no problem commanding.
The orchestra brings on the drama as much as pianist Chen as he attacked the piano keys.
Chen was met by a well deserved standing ovation after the work’s end.
The orchestra showcased its many talented musicians on Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, more popularly known as his “New World Symphony.” Dvorak used folk dances in the piece and African and Native American influences that he gathered during his time in America from 1892 to 1895, when he was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write the “New World Symphony.”
This is the second time I have heard the WFSO perform the Dvorak composition. The four-movement piece is one of my favorites. Somehow I always hear “Star Wars” and “Jaws” and wonder how much John Williams might have been influenced by Dvorak.
The orchestra, full and packed to the hilt with musicians, turned in some big sounds, particularly in the first movement, followed by soloists piping in with just about every section of the orchestra represented: the lavish French horns, a brief cello and violin duet, and that joyful clarinet solo.
The WFSO showed great contrast between my favorite movement, the second movement, in which the theme of the work is emphasized, and the big, joyful finale.
Lebanon-born Fouad Fakhouri had a great rapport with the audience, taking time to introduce the evening’s repertoire and tell about his ties to Texas. He studied here, at West Texas A&M University and the University of North Texas.
Saturday night’s concert was really an orchestra showcase for the WFSO with lush, rich strings, Russian romanticism, joyful clarinets and the lyricism of pianist Sean Chen.
The next WFSO concert March 25 will feature the Midtown Men, made up of members of the Broadway show “Jersey Boys.”
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