Patrons entering Copley Symphony Hall Saturday (January 30) faced an unusual sight: three grand pianos sitting side by side stage center. This odd keyboard array allowed an equally exceptional progam of music for multiple pianos, another musical venture expanding the range of the orchestra’s Upright and Grand Piano Festival, now in its final week.
Although nothing else on the program matched the panache of Mozart’s Triple Piano Concerto in F Major, K. 242, several pieces for piano four hands and one for duo pianos won enthusiastic approval from the sizable audience at the Jacobs Music Center.
The 20-year-old Mozart was commissioned to write this concerto for three pianos by Count Ernst Lodron, the most musically sophisticated member of Salzburg’s nobility, as a showpiece for the Count’s wife and two daughters to perform. Unlike Mozart’s difficult relationship with his nefarious employer, Archbishop Colleredo, he got along splendidly with Count Lodron, who had him write other instrumental works to adorn his lavish social events.
Saturday’s soloists were guest pianists Jessie Chang and Conrad Tao, with Music Director Jahja Ling conducting from the piano and serving as the third pianist. This proved an ideal division of labors, with Chang and Tao executing superbly the copious rococo figuration that propels this charming concerto, while Ling cued the pared-down orchestra and played the less demanding piano part, which Mozart crafted for the Count’s younger, less musically experienced daughter.
Chang’s supple Mozart lead glowed with a silken sheen, her trademark, which I recall from a previous performance with the orchestra in 2013 in the Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos. Tao’s approach, more athletic than elegant, exhibited a more pronounced attack, yet these subtle differences actually made the texture of the music richer and the two players’ antiphonal responses more sharply defined. Last spring, Tao made a spectacular local debut with the San Diego Symphony playing Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto, and the audience eagerly welcomed him back.
Playing the third piano part did not impede for a moment Ling’s precise and efficient direction of his players, who gave the concerto energetic, stylish flare in the outer movements, projecting a lithe and fresh sonority that made the composer’s nimble themes even more attractive. This conducting arrangement gave an enticing approximation of how 18th-century concertos were actually performed, before the separate conductor came about in the era of Felix Mendelssohn.
Ling and Chang offered a charming pair of Antonín Dvořák’s “Slavonic Dances” for piano four-hands, and Ling joined Tao in two of Johannes Brahms’ more virtuosic “Hungarian Dances,” in which Tao’s more personal interpretation of the score compromised the performers’ unity. But Tao’s speed and flash in the familiar G Minor “Hungarian Dance” was breath-taking.
Do George Gershwin’s Three Preludes for piano gain something significant in a two piano arrangement? Ling and Chang did not persuade me that this was a step up for these familiar recital gems, but I was completely entranced by Chang’s sultry insinuations in the slow, jazz-inspired Second Prelude.
To bookend this ample concert, Ling conducted the orchestra in arrangements of two Impressionist favorites, Claude Debussy’s “Petite Suite” and Maurice Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite. Both were given meticulous, sensuous performances, abounding in shimmering woodwind solos. But I think Ling was admitting that closing the program with the Ravel Suite was too anti-climactic when he quickly added the Brahms “Hungarian Dance” No. 1 as an upbeat encore.
This program was performed by the San Diego Symphony on January 30, 2016, at the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. The next orchestra performance features popular artist Ben Folds and guest conductor Jacomo Rafael Bairos on February 6, 2016, in the same venue.