The audience at this concert by the State Symphony Orchestra of Mexico in Wright Auditorium heard nearly two concerts worth of musical notes in one evening. A pair of large-scale favorites was sandwiched between two lesser-known pieces, and the orchestra and a piano soloist each played two additional encores.
The concert, part of the S. Rudolph Alexander Performing Arts Series at East Carolina University, clocked in at more than 100 minutes of music-making, and one has little doubt about the energy and the skill levels of the players in getting through the two big pieces and still having something left over for the encores.
The same could be said of soloist Leonel Morales, who tackled a gigantic piece in the piano repertoire, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, and still had something left over for encores.
Morales took charge of the concerto from the start and captured the score’s many nuances. From the simple opening to the crashing finale, soloist and orchestra played well, often magnificently. Morales’ playing was not without a few missed notes here and there, but watching someone take on the “Rach 3” with such obvious passion and skill was quite a treat.
This concerto moves from Chopin delicacy to Liszt thunder and back several times, and the composer made full use of not just the entire orchestra as a partner with and in support of the soloist, but he also created beautiful smaller ensembles within — piano with flute, in particular, and piano with horn or clarinet.
In the first Allegro movement, Morales seemed to play a million notes in his solo, all with considerable strength and finesse. The second Intermezzo movement was highlighted by heartfelt strings, including passages that recall the soaring strings in the Second Symphony, all the while supporting a piano line that combined power and grace. Morales employed a wide range of dynamics as the piano line built an emotional intensity of its own. The Finale movement, which grew from the second without pause, moved through some lovely, highly Romantic passages to an eye-opening, jaw-dropping climax, using all the forces the orchestra and soloist can muster.
In theory, Mendelssohn’s well-known “Reformation” Symphony (No. 5 in D major) moves toward a rousing conclusion in the same way, but somehow conductor Enrique Batiz and the audience were not on the same score. For the most part, Batiz led with a no-nonsense, economical, businesslike style, using mainly his right hand with baton. No flamboyance, no wild gyrations.
But he also pushed the orchestra into a tempo that was almost too fast, one that prevented the music from breathing. The second Allegro vivace movement, for example, with its familiar wind choir opening, was no lilting dance; it was a race, and only when the mood shifted did the tempo slow down a bit.
Where communication between audience and performer broke down was at the very end, when the familiar “Eine Feste Burg” theme came to its rousing conclusion. Batiz closed his score almost before the last notes died out and didn’t signal in any way that the piece was over. The audience likely should have known, of course, but there was no break between the third and fourth movements, and an awkward momentary silence followed before a few audience members tentatively started clapping.
The concert opened with Chacona in E minor by 20th century Mexican composer Carlos Chavez. It resembles the famous Stokowski transcription of Bach’s “Passacaglia and Fugue” in orchestration (and actually the melody, too), with nice wind ensemble scoring along with full orchestra.
The closing piece was the vibrant “Sensemaya” by Silvestre Revueltas, heavy on percussion and maintaining a shiny veneer throughout. This piece, inspired by a poem about the ritual killing of a snake, reminds one of part of “The Rite of Spring.” One of the instruments in the score is a piano, but perhaps because of the brightness of the auditorium’s acoustics, the orchestra completely covered the piano lines.
Morales played two encores after the Rachmaninoff, including a nice reading of “Malagueña,” and the orchestra offered a selection from de Falla’s “Three Cornered Hat” and “Huapango” by José Pablo Moncayo, which featured not only plenty of percussion (castanets included), but also some energetic harp passages.
Hearing good performances of a Western European piano concerto and symphony certainly can be a plus for a concert-goer, but a better approach might have been to emphasize more of the work by Latin American composers, ones whose compositions are not as well known in the United States. The six shorter pieces with the Spanish or Latin American flavor in this concert certainly were enjoyable and well performed.