Ann Arbor Symphony and Andre Watts deliver crowd-pleasing Beethoven Festival


Andre Watts (Photo by Steve J. Sherman)

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Sept. 14, 2014)

Two 5’s and a 3 make 13.

And 13 is clearly a lucky number for the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, which launched its 2014-15 season Saturday evening at Hill Auditorium with a roof-raising Beethoven Festival.

On the bill were three of Beethoven’s greatest hits: The Symphony No. 5, the Piano Concerto No. 5 (“The Emperor”) and the “Leonore Overture No. 3.” The program – and, certainly, the presence of internationally renowned pianist Andre Watts to play the “Emperor” – drew a capacity crowd to Hill, where the A2SO plays on special occasions rather than at the Michigan Theater, its usual home.

And special this occasion was.

For A2SO Music Director Arie Lipsky and the orchestra, inviting an artist of Watts’ caliber was an announcement of its own caliber, notice that it, too, is ready for prime time and worthy of a place on the national map. It lived up to that in its performance, thrillingly so.

Opening a season with pieces so well known as these by Beethoven is both a boon and a risk. Sure, folks will show up. But when lots of those folks “know how it goes” and could hum the next strain (or the rest of the piece) from memory if the orchestra happened to go on strike mid-phrase, there’s a danger of disappointment and staleness, too.

Once or twice on Saturday, in some bridge passages in the “Leonore,” it felt a little bit like Lipsky and his musicians also knew how it went. But the rest of the evening was electric.

The opening of the “Leonore,” for example, was arresting, the orchestra intoning its descending octaves with such hushed intensity and intense dynamic concentration that even if you didn’t know the plot of “Fidelio,” the opera for which this “Leonore” was once intended, you knew something dramatic (like the descent to Florestan’s dungeon) was underway. The playing was everywhere operatic, in the best sense of the word, urgent and, ultimately, joyously Beethoven-heroic. And you can’t do better than trumpet playing like William Campbell’s, whose offstage fanfares were glorious heralds from first note to last tapering finish.

There are lots of ways to play the opening motto of the Fifth Symphony – the famous short-short-short-long of Fate knocking at the door. Fate was in a pretty fair rush to be admitted in Lipsky’s conception, pressing fast and furious into the room in a whirlwind of haste.

Once inside, Fate calmed down, but the drama never ceased, happily so, until it was overtaken by the triumphant celebration of the final movement, powerful in its force much like the finale of the Ninth. Yes, we know all these notes, and yes, they are great when they are played well, especially in a live performance. Here, however, it was wonderful to be overtaken by the performance, to be surprisingly overcome by the score’s enduring power and promise of transformation.

The clarity of the playing was remarkable in the Fifth Symphony (and throughout the evening), The balances were superb among sections and voices. And the wind and brass choirs were more than on their game when they had the spotlight, which is early and often in this symphony. The cellos and violas, in the opening of the slow movement, suggested an ample view at the top of their phrases with the slightest of expansions. And after the menace of the scherzo, the orchestra was out of the shadows and into the sunlight, saving some of that solar energy for a blazing finish.

That was the score at half-time.

The way to top that in the second half was sure: Leave that virtuoso concerto for last. And absolutely not least.

There’s good reason, we are reminded, why these pieces are warhorses and evergreen in the right hands.

Watts’ hands are some of those. He played with both impetuosity and consideration. The opening cadenzas – the piano so impatient to find its place that it gives the orchestra just one chord before it comes in – unfurled in a rush of energy up the keyboard. And if Watts’ could produce steel when needed, if he could roll up his sleeves (he at least pushed back his cuffs) for blazing passages in the finale, he could also produce the most glowing of pearls, the most even and delicate of trills. The Adagio was pure night music. And the finale, a rollicking, unbound caper, was played with panache as well as finesse.

From where I sat, orchestra right, the balances between soloist and orchestra seemed ideal and the hand-offs between them, seamless. If the orchestra was a fine accompanist, so, too, was Watts, making his accompanimental figures count when the orchestra had the tune.

It was heady stuff. The music done, the crowd bounded to its feet to offer multiple ovations. Watts received roses. He plucked one out to offer it to Lipsky. Everyone deserved a bouquet.

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