Center of gravity

Shi-Yeon Sung and Nelson Freire at the BSO; plus the Schubertiade Music Players and Emmanuel's St. Matthew Passion
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  April 14, 2009

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THE EXCITEMENT ECHOED: when Sung and Freire performed the Grieg Piano Concerto.

A lot of young people were at last Thursday's Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, and if they didn't leave Symphony Hall feeling excited about classical music and eager to come back, then classical music is in even more trouble than I thought. The excitement echoed and re-echoed in extended and enthusiastic ovations.

This was the Symphony Hall debut of a wonderful young musician, BSO assistant conductor Shi-Yeon Sung, who was born in Korea 33 years ago. Last summer at Tanglewood, she led the first two Elliott Carter pieces of a landmark concert at Seiji Ozawa Hall (the first time the BSO had played a program entirely devoted to Carter): his recent Horn Concerto, a BSO commission, and his Three Illusions for Orchestra (one section of which, the brief Micómicon, was another BSO commission). Challenging pieces, but they seemed to hold no terrors for Sung, and the performances were both accomplished and convincing.

This time, she chose a program designed to test the mettle of any conductor, if for no other reason than its mind-boggling variety. She led off with a Sibelius tone poem, the rarely performed The Bard, and followed it with an old warhorse, but one the BSO hadn't actually played at Symphony Hall since 1991, the Grieg Piano Concerto, with the elegant Brazilian virtuoso Nelson Freire. After intermission came two very different ballet suites: Copland's Appalachian Spring and Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin. The Sibelius actually sounded like Finnish music, darkly mysterious and inexorable (much more so than Alan Gilbert's BSO performance of Sibelius's Night Ride and Sunrise a few weeks earlier), with Ann Hobson Pilot as the bardic harpist. Then the Grieg sounded thoroughly Norwegian, with its buoyant dances, and the Copland sounded spaciously American. And if the Bartók didn't actually sound Hungarian (Bartók wasn't trying for that), at least it was wildly surrealistic, another world from anything else on the program, with its bizarre narrative that Sung made almost easy to follow.

In a way, the hardest of these pieces to pull off is the Grieg. We're so used to hearing it pounded into a showpiece, with its banging opening chords and sentimental slow movement. Here both conductor and soloist took the piece seriously, without condescension. It sounded fresh and alert, lilting and singing, never falling into the knee-jerk generic. Freire has a magical, glistening tone, even at the highest volume, so even those opening chords had beauty as well as power. The Adagio had a dreamy solemnity. Sung kept it moving slowly forward, quietly opening out, giving Freire all the room he needed, with a wide horizontal vista. And the finale had a bouncy verticality.

The audience seemed overjoyed, and many people stood to cheer, so after a couple of curtain calls, Freire returned and played an encore: a piano arrangement of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurydice. Here was music that cried out for Freire's exquisite touch — and got it in spades. It was on every level some of the most heavenly pianism I've ever heard, and it brought tears to my eyes. Boston has had some pianistic disappointments of late — Murray Perahia, Alexei Volodin, Lang Lang, and the worrisome cancellation of Krystian Zimerman's Celebrity Series recital (because of a "lingering illness") — but Freire provided more than adequate compensation. I wish he played here more. (He has a new Debussy album, and if you missed the concert, you can still get an idea of his miraculous subtlety and delicacy.)

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