Review: Jonathan Biss and the Austin Symphony Orchestra
The Austin Symphony Orchestra’s night started out not with a bang, but with a bird call.
The bird was the lark, written by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in his orchestral work “The Lark Ascending,” and the caller was violin soloist Jessica Mathaes. This is a gorgeous piece, full of slow, somber bittersweet colors, but the lark gets most of the attention.
Mathaes, of course, usually serves as the symphony’s concertmaster, but on this occasion, she emerged on the stage of the Long Center in a red dress, front and center (though a microphone stand rather excessively blocked our view of her).
Her playing was ethereal, subdued, maybe a little overcautious, but conductor Peter Bay and the orchestra were extremely sensitive accompanists. All the high trills, harmonics and cadenzas eased the audience into a reverie. And not to mention that Mathaes had, just a month ago, given birth to her second child.
Next, came Jonathan Biss, one of the piano world’s young guns, who, like Jeremy Denk, is a performer who spends a great deal of time thinking of ways to confront the master composers while making their music sound fresh.
Biss certainly made Robert Schumann’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54,” sound vibrant. This is such a memorable piece — the theme is the sort of thing you come out humming at intermission. It’s already very dramatic (the piano part has a pulse of painful longing), but instead of just flowing along with the melodies, Biss attacked them in tiny, unpredictable ways, making for a compelling interplay between the orchestra and piano. It was, however, a strain to hear the piano at times.
And finally, Brahms’ Second Symphony, a really lovely version of this symphony, which felt bright and alive.
After a little while, on Saturday evening at least, you might have noticed that Bay was conducting with a certain flow — and if you looked closer, you might have noticed that he was doing it without a score. No flipping pages, no glancing at the stand, just going completely by memory. An absolutely remarkable feat, considering the number of cues, dynamics, and intangible details that go into a piece of music that’s over 40 minutes long.
Although it does happen, I can’t recall ever seeing it done before — the conductors who work from memory are the things of orchestral lore — but it was impressive. A joy to watch and to hear, which tied a bow on a this satisfying group of Romantic pieces.