Young conductor makes impressive Atlanta Symphony debut
By Pierre Ruhe
Every time English pianist Stephen Hough performs in Atlanta — he seems to play either Spivey Hall or Symphony Hall every year or so — he’s interesting in an unexpected way. Hough (pronounced “huff”) is also a blogger, where his expertise includes “theology, art, hats, puddings…” Here’s a recent sample: “It’s not Mozart, stupid!
“I read yesterday that researchers at Vienna University’s Faculty of Psychology, after 15 years of examining the data, have determined that there is no provable connection between listening to Mozart and increased intelligence — the so-called ‘Mozart effect’. This does not surprise me. I would have been astonished if such a thing could be scientifically verified, not just because I’ve met many musicians who were not particularly bright, but because the whole issue of intelligence as something measurable is open to question. Indeed, many areas of psychology itself remain stubbornly beyond proof…”.
You can tell he has a lively mind. On Thursday with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Hough brought the rarely heard original version of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a weighty and awkwardly proportioned work that has neither gone away nor taken hold in the standard repertoire — at least not to Tchaikovsky’s level of popularity. (Alexander Siloti’s revision has been most often heard; this was the ASO’s premiere of the original.) The program will be repeated Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon.
Hough made what felt like the definitive case for the composer’s own version; I’m sold on it permanently. In the process, he also made a compelling case for the concerto itself. As a brainy, perspiration-free supervirtuoso, he never played up the sentimentality. It was Tchaikovsky freshly scrubbed, a wonder.
In the first movement cadenza, Hough made the hammering 10-finger runs, at top speed, sound like beautifully etched clouds of sound, at once precise and gauzy, with a few pauses of introspection. (He also seemed to be using the pedal on the Hamburg Steinway a lot. Was the instrument acting up?)
The concerto’s slow middle movement offers the pianist almost nothing to do. The movement is admired for the long solos accorded a violin and cello, here played with great feeling by ASO associate concertmaster William Pu and associate principal cellist Daniel Laufer. French conductor Ludovic Morlot, making his ASO debut, led the orchestra in tight, precise gestures, and the whole concerto blazed with a sense of discovery and satisfaction.
The instant standing ovation wasn’t a surprise — Atlanta audiences like to stand, whether it’s for safe and shabby or risky and brilliant — but Hough’s solo encore was unusual: “Moscow Nights,” a 1950s Soviet pop song heard in countless incarnations, including as a piano piece by Van Cliburn. Hough played the song in his own arrangement, which started like Rachmaninoff and segued into Russian-accented Gershwin.
At 36, still young for a conductor, Morlot has built a sterling resume — including regular gigs with Paris’ crack new-music Ensemble Intercontemporain, as the Boston Symphony’s assistant conductor (the same position that launched Robert Spano’s career) and, more recently, conducting major orchestras around the globe.
Morlot is a work in progress. The opening triptych of spooky Russian tone poems by Anatoli Liadov — “The Enchanted Lake,” “Baba-Yaga” and “Kikimora” — showed a conductor with a disciplined baton and a focused and unified interpretation but too little expression, too little musical fantasy.
That carried over to Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” where the orchestra played 45 minutes of excerpts from the complete ballet score. The opening scenes hummed and howled, always with a hard edge. Morlot didn’t seem to ignore the lyricism of the score so much as make it beside the point. “The Young Juliet” scene was nimble and gossamer, yet never carefree as it ought to be in a girlish, pre-Romeo kind of way.
Then came the “Death of Tybalt” scene that ends Act Two — all those slashing chords — and it was electrifying in its savagery. Here Romeo was a cold-eyed killer avenging his friend’s murder. Conductor and orchestra finally seemed to have found a shared voice of expression, and suddenly the ASO was playing its virtuosic and dramatic best. “The Death of Juliet” that followed was achingly lyrical, of small moments, devastating beauty and deep regrets. By concert’s end it was certain: Morlot will soon be big time.