Virginia Symphony Orchestra starts season with "fireworks"

Friday's opening concert in the Ferguson Center of the Virginia Symphony, "Russian Fireworks," featured works by Borodin, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff, all selected to elicit listening excitement. And while the Borodin and Stravinsky had moments of high energy, promised fireworks only came from hearing Conrad Tao, one of the hottest pianists on today's scene, having achieved major recognition as a soloist, composer, violinist and recording artist.

Rachmaninoff's showy Piano Concerto No. 3 was the chosen vehicle to showcase Tao's abundant talents and well he did he do just that. This work is considered one of the toughest in the literature and has frequently been associated with "fear" on the part of its players due to its technical challenges. Beyond the piano part, the orchestral challenges are complex in responding to the soloist's nuances and the score's complexities. The combination of elements makes for very exciting listening. 

As for Tao, he surpassed reputation. He delivered an intense, involved, passion-inspired performance that was one of the most thrilling to be heard on stage with this symphony. His was a very physical delivery. Tao seemed to become one with the instrument and the score; he moved about constantly on the piano bench, often, in moments of heightened emphasis rising up from the bench, his feet frequently moving about and not strictly on the pedals. As he molded the lush lines of the piece, he seemed transfixed, his eyes closed, his head tossed backward in dream-like fashion. 

Tao was the master of the Rachmaninoff and its many moods, offering inspired lyricism and ponderous power. As for technique, his defined virtuoso in a brilliant display of total musicianship and artistry. Even though the Rachmaninoff was a major workout, Tao generously responded to his thunderous and spontaneous applause with an encore of Elliot Carter's "Catenaires," a devilishly difficult work. The chordless work is a nonstop rapid fire delivery of notes that bounce all over the keyboard in what might seem haphazard fashion, offering colorful and often dissonant combinations of sound, all carried off to perfection.

JoAnn Falletta skillfully navigated the score, bringing both orchestra and soloist into the same sphere of involvement and sweeping execution. Despite occasional moments when the orchestra's encompassing sound covered Tao's, it was a mighty performance. 

Opening the evening was Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances" from his opera "Prince Igor." "Dances" is colorful and spirited, qualities that the Symphony seemed to embrace. Although I couldn't see the chorus from my viewing point nor hear a full balance of sound, the generalized sound I did hear was indicative of the group's usual solid performance.  

Rounding off the fare was Stravinsky's "Petrushka," one of three ballet score written for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, the other two being "Firebird" and "Rite of Spring." It's a work of colorful orchestration, tricky rhythms and innovative patterns; it's decidedly a ballet score. Unlike other such scores that can carry the dance narrative without the dance, "Petrushka's" many segments, vivid though they are and as well played as they may have been, ended up sounding strung together rather than providing a focused, more linear listening experience. 

John Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera." 

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