The Columbus Indiana Philharmonic’s season-opening concert Saturday was a multi-faceted evening of celebration and music with an amazing young guest artist and distinguished guests. The orchestra, with its longtime and only conductor, David Bowden, began its celebration of the 30th anniversary with this evening concert.
In keeping with the hallmark date, the orchestra performed “Jubliee” from “Symphony Sketches” by George Whitefield Chadwick — a work featured at the ensemble’s first concert in 1987.
An amazingly brilliant 28-year-old American pianist, Sean Chen, gave the Philharmonic’s Shigeru Kawai Concert Grand Piano its first public sounds with a performance of the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, op. 30 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.
What Bowden does with an orchestra was evident from the first note of the Chadwick “Jubilee.” The orchestral sound was energetic, full and balanced, but always controlled with a wide variation of colors.
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Chadwick was one of the first American composers to give a real individual voice to American music. He incorporated bits of European Scotch-Irish folk elements as well as Afro-Caribbean influences. In that context, the work had bursts of sound from full brass — trumpets, trombones, horns and tuba contrasting in quieter more gentle section with solo winds played well. In its fanfare-like way, this work was a perfect opener.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B Minor op. 74, Pathetique was the orchestral centerpiece of the evening. It is a monumental work and one of Tchaikovsky’s best and most famous. Within the setting of the finest orchestration possible, this work reached both the highest and the lowest emotional planes.
In the first movement, the orchestra with Bowden met all challenges. After the quietest beginning by the bassoon, the orchestra began with full sound especially wonderful in the strings soaring with the most beautiful melodies. The contrast with light, fast patterns was crisp and precise. Finally the sweeping lyrical theme won out.
The second movement, a waltz in the unusual meter of 5/4, was again resounding in sheer beauty. The third movement found the orchestra at its most exuberant moments reaching a climax that justifiably brought applause. The final movement, quiet in nature, was shown by the orchestra as a sad reflection on life, possibly the end of life.
After intermission the presentation of the Shigeru Kawai Concert Grant by Enkei American, Inc. was made by Enkei Group Chief Executive Officer Junichi Suzuki and his longtime friend, Hirotaka Kawai, president and chief executive officer of Kawai Musical Instruments Manufacturing Co. A response followed with The Golden Baton award to both men from the Philharmonic, presented by board president Peter King. Then, Mayor Jim Lienhoop presented a citation and the key to the city to both guests.
Then it was time for the piano to speak. This was an exquisite instrument in every respect. The beauty of sound; the wide range of sound and color; the magnificent voicing and balance of this instrument was breathtaking.
It took the hands and heart of Chen to make this a reality and he and the instrument took the concerto to its highest level possible. After my living a long life with the Rachmaninoff 3rd, it took this youthful musician to show me the most imaginative and compelling performance of the work I have ever heard.
His lyrical approach throughout did not rule out heights of passion of enormous proportion. His colors were limitless. The cadenza in the first movement was a revelation.
The inner voices brought new light to structures. One could go on and on. Watch this award-winning performer. The standing ovation after the final climactic moment of the concert was so sustained that Chen returned for an encore. He chose one of his transcriptions of a movement from a solo Johann Sebastian Bach violin work. It was quiet and inspiringly spiritual, ending the evening in a thoughtful postscript.
Henry Upper is associate dean emeritus of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.