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Concert Review

Ohlsson plays Rachmaninoff

Garrick Ohlsson, piano
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
Detroit Orchestra Hall 23 October 2014

I'm not going to lie; the Orchestra's opening weekend with Sarah Chang struck me as a near total failure, so I was anxious to see how the ensemble would rebound. The test was passed effectively, though there were some unexpected issues that cropped up in addition to the usual ones. Music Director Leonard Slatkin continued his "Concerto in America" series with a classic premiered on these shores, and showcased his still-formidable skill in American music with two pieces making their first appearances in Detroit.

Michael Daugherty is a truly imposing figure; he towers over everyone and seems quite intimidating. But the irony is that he writes some of the nation's most enjoyable new music. On Naxos, the symphony orchestras of Detroit, Nashville, and others have all championed his incredibly accessible and crowd-pleasing output. Lost Vegas is – according to the composer's website – his personal tribute to a bygone era. There are sleazy sounds everywhere, and the musical imagery is especially vivid in the bright and bustling moments of the work. Cast in three parts, it's akin to a tone poem, though I'm unsure if the composer sees it that way. Whatever the shortcomings of this Detroit orchestra, they remain committed to new pieces, and played very well.

In Billy the Kid, it's easy to understand why the suite is preferable to the complete score. The suite simply has less dead air, while the complete work does little to convince me it needs to be heard that way. Slatkin recorded the score complete back in 1985, and this weekend's concerts will later appear on Naxos. I see no reason why, since the St. Louis forces 30 years ago are probably better than the Detroit Symphony is now. Of course, these are professionals who played with great skill, but I don't know what these new efforts will possess over the earlier EMI set, which is absolutely jam-packed with great music. I don't believe this particular evenings' sessions were being recorded, and that's a good thing. There were some issues with rhythm and overall cohesiveness that I found troubling. The percussion was occasionally off. On the plus side, I was reminded of how persuasive a Copland conductor Slatkin is. Unique touches were everywhere, a joy to hear from a maestro that occasionally seems to have seen better days.

In the Rachmaninoff, I was consistently thinking back to this orchestra's outstanding readings of the composer's symphonies on Naxos. The deep, rich sound of the ensemble fit this music like a glove. Slatkin has – as in Copland – been a tremendous advocate of this music for decades, and on evidence here, remains so. Garrick Ohlsson recorded this piece with the Atlanta Symphony on ASO Media, and is a serious, seasoned artist. Possessing neither the warmest tone, nor the most Romantic approach, his straightforward and unfailingly musical skills paid dividends. As per usual, the Detroit Symphony took a few minutes to really find its footing; the orchestra initially overpowered the piano entirely. A lack of coordination between the podium and pianist also proved unsettling. Happily, Ohlsson soon settled in nicely, and the work improved as it went along. A very obvious flub in the woodwinds before the finale proved startling; of all the orchestra's sections, they are perhaps the most reliable. Also, the fact that the orchestra has such difficultly following a soloist – Ohlsson finally resorted to simply looking at the podium for the last movement – speaks volumes about the challenges the ensemble has going forward. The solo playing was spectacular, though neither the pianist nor piano sounded tonally alluring at the start. All in all, a fine evening. Vastly superior to the opening weekend, I am hopeful that things continue to improve.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman

Trumpet