The real Ann Arbor Symphony shows its strengths in Beethoven, with soloist Garrick Ohlsson

By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT

(Ann Arbor, Sept. 20, 2015)

It’s an interesting concert, indeed, where Beethoven’s great Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) seems like the warm up act.

With the third of Beethoven’s five piano concertos still to come post-intermission — the case Saturday evening when the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra began its season with a “Beethoven Festival” at Hill Auditorium – perhaps that’s understandable. Especially when the featured concerto soloist is the inimitable Garrick Ohlsson. And especially when we get to double-dip by hearing him twice – once in the concerto and then in the rarely offered Beethoven “Choral Fantasy,” with the magnificent singers of the UMS Choral Union

Ohlsson soloed in both the third piano concerto and the "Choral Fantasy"

Ohlsson soloed in both the third piano concerto and the “Choral Fantasy”

Ohlsson got top billing in this A2SO concert, conducted by Music Director Arie Lipsky — the concert’s full title was “Beethoven Festival with Garrick Ohlsson.” Providing us with thrilling accounts of both the concerto and the fantasy, the 6-foot-4 Ohlsson lived up to every inch of the all-caps letters we might have seen on the marquee if Hill had one.

What Hill does have, despite its deserved reputation for fabulous acoustics, is some dead seats. Perhaps not every orchestra seat under the balcony overhang is bad, but I’ve sat in some dogs there. Once, a number of years back, I decided I was suddenly going deaf – until I realized where my seat was located. Last night, for the first half of the concert — the “Eroica” — I kept wondering, after the wonderful, cushioned “pow” of the “Eroica’s “ first chord, when the orchestra would wake up. The playing seemed so flat after that, so muted, mild and lacking in energy. But post-intermission, when my husband and I spotted a pair of vacant aisle seats in Row S – just beyond the sound-killing shadow of the overhang – we relocated for the concerto and “Choral Fantasy.” Guess what? The orchestra was playing in living color.

So maybe they were all along, and I just couldn’t hear it. I’m willing to buy that (though not to re-imagine that all entrances were spot-on unanimous or that balances were perfect), given the fabulous playing in the second half. Occasionally I wanted a little more prominence from the winds when they had their solo moments – a complaint I had in the first half, too – but wow, how they delivered as soloists and choirs in moments of dialog with Ohlsson in the fantasy, for example. Mesmerizingly gorgeous!

In the third concerto, the orchestra was very much on its game. Lipsky drew nuanced dynamic and tonal shadings from the players; the players delivered articulations that were near bookend-matched to Ohlsson’s; and their entrance at the recapitulation of the first movement was sharp in spot-on drama. My favorite moment of all: the end of the last movement, where Ohlsson several times finishes the orchestra’s thoughts, and then they finish his. They get the last word, more or less. It was just deliciously done.

Ohlsson, meanwhile, was an orchestra unto himself, making the piano ring with sweeps of sound that made you think he was hiding strings, winds and brass somewhere out of sight but near at hand. At the same time, moments of heavenly light and overall clarity – even in the most dizzying and dazzling passage work – gave his playing an irresistible allure and elan. I couldn’t keep a smile off my face. His calm and collection only added to the exhilaration.

There was more joy ahead in the “Choral Fantasy.” A) There was Ohlsson’s return, to noodle – a mild word for what he did – in the virtuoso improvisatory writing Beethoven gives the pianist (who was originally Beethoven!) to open the work. B) There was the orchestra, once again in top form. C) There was the Choral Union – soloists and choir, now directed by Scott Hanoian – to make a thrilling entrance with that proto-“Ode-to-Joy” melody Ohlsson and the orchestra intone before turning it over to the singers. Beethoven was onto a good thing here. He knew it, and we knew it, for sure, in this terrific performance Saturday night. It was a good time, on both sides of the footlights.

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