Upon hearing pianist Constance Keene play the set of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes, Artur Rubinstein reportedly exclaimed that he was “completely flabbergasted by the fantastic sweep, color, tone, and last but not least, the incredible technique.” While his choice of “flabbergasted” may not have been linguistically elegant, he could well have experienced that same emotion if he had heard Garrick Ohlsson on a crisp fall evening in Meymandi Concert Hall. There the world-class pianist joined Music Director Grant Llewellyn and the North Carolina Symphony in a pair of established audience favorites.
The Bach Suite No. 2 in B minor for Orchestra, S.1067, opened the proceedings. In what must have been a test of endurance, it featured Principal flutist Anne Whaley Laney. The piece is called a suite for orchestra, but in truth it is more like a flute solo with backup by some twenty strings and continuo. With no break for her during all the action, she seemed to thrive and excel despite the demands of the seven movements.
Book-ending the intermission were the two piano works of the evening featuring Ohlsson as the honored guest. Vintage Mozart was obviously on hand as the orchestra waded into the long opening tutti section of his Concerto No. 14 in E-flat for piano and orchestra, K.449. Here and particularly in the Andantino movement the players exhibited a highly polished sound. The program notes referred to the Andantino as “a sublime lyrical effusion” and that it “moves with unassuming dignity and tenderness.” Pianist, director and players collaborated to ensure that these exuberant praises continued to be justified.
The second large piano work was Weber’s Konzertstück for piano and orchestra in F minor, Op. 79. Although Weber called this merely a “concert piece,” it is a full-fledged piano concerto (actually the composer’s third such work). Here Weber has fled the world of Mozart and Haydn and has introduced a lush romanticism. It was easy to bask in that quality in any of the four movements, played without break. Particularly exhilarating was the huge Tempo di Marcia movement, a sometimes turbulent section that featured soloist and orchestra at their finest. Perhaps partly because this was their third presentation of these concertos, soloist Ohlsson and director Llewellyn seemed to work together in amazing synchronism.
Ohlsson’s prodigious technique was matched by his equally prodigious memory. It was astonishing to see those two works played back to back from a score residing exclusively in his mind, particularly when one realizes that they were probably just two of who knows how many. This American musical artist has proved himself a worthy heir of his renowned former mentor, Claudio Arrau.
Closing the evening was Schubert’s tuneful Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, D.485. This rather familiar work seems to be the composer’s most played symphony after the famous “Unfinished.” It provided a high note on which to end an evening characterized by excellence of programming and execution, along with obvious audience enthusiasm.