Sirena Huang and Conrad Tao are both 15 years old. On Saturday night with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, in the Music Center at Strathmore, Huang and Tao performed Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto and first piano concerto, respectively. When I was 15 years old, about the most complex thing I could do was drive terribly on my learner’s permit. So even being able to get up on stage and play with the Balmer Symphony redounds to their credit and testifies to the work Huang and Tao have put in thus far. Yet both of the concerto performances showed what these young artists will have to develop to go from being “Rising Stars” (in the BSO’s title for the concert) to being stars, period.
For its part, the BSO sounded great on Saturday, led by assistant principal violist Christian Colberg. Colberg, who also plays violin and composes in his spare time, has a very conductor-y mane of silver hair and a batonless podium style that untutored me could follow very easily; his gestures expressed enthusiasm for the cool parts of the scores, and the BSO responded with equally excited playing.
In the concert-opening “Capriccio italien,” the BSO’s opening horn fanfares glowed like the dawn, while the strings shaped their melodies with the kind of dusky, display-oriented passion called for by the score. It was just the work for a conductor who knows exactly what the orchestra can provide, and Colberg brought out its strengths. Hearing Colberg lead the BSO through an entire program of colorful, lush pieces (Rimsky-Korsakov, Resphigi, Dvorák?) would likely be a lot of fun.
I realize Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto is universally accepted as a Best-Loved Classic, but for me the first movement goes on freaking forever with endless repetitions of two main themes that don’t bear the extended scrutiny. A violinist working through such longeurs needs to be able to make the theme fresh every time it’s heard, through different phrasing, tricks of tone color, varying the intensity of the rhythm, or something. Huang seemed to trust Tchaikovsky’s two-track mind too much for my taste, producing undifferentiated takes on the melody as it spooled out again and again and again. She took a cool, matter-of-fact approach to the Canzonetta second movement, missing some of its hushed intensity. The high-energy rondo finale perked her back up, but here technical struggles came to the fore; throughout the concerto, she had trouble hitting the high harmonics Tchaikovsky often demands at climaxes, and though she continually looked to Colberg to keep tempos synched, she and the BSO often diverged slightly.
After intermission, from the first notes crashing up the keyboard, the main problem with Tao’s performance of the first piano concerto was obvious: He had a lot of trouble getting a nice sound out of Strathmore’s Steinway. Tao’s fingers frequently made the piano clang in fortissimos and plunk ungracefully like a music box at the top of the keyboard. (I will note that it was stiflingly humid on Saturday, as it has seemingly been every other day this summer, which can’t have done much for the piano.) Like Huang, he showed little sensitivity to color, and he rarely brought more to the poetic passages than was in the score. Tao got through this extremely difficult opus without any major calamites befalling him, but rarely did the performance go beyond that.
As noted, the BSO packaged this as a “Rising Stars” concert. While the classical music world’s fascination with young people who can play creditably knows no bounds, I submit that it might be more interesting to hear, in a “Rising Stars” concert, talented adults who have somehow been bypassed by the classical star-making apparatus — perhaps someone too unconventional for most orchestras, perhaps someone who just matured late. Doubtless, Huang and Tao each have many good Tchaikovsky concerti in them, but on the basis of Saturday’s concert, they need to think about how best to present those works for a few more years.
Other People’s Perspectives: Robert Battey.