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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Silenced Voices II: Jonathan Biss, (piano), Los Angeles Philharmonic, James Conlon, conductor, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California, October 29, 2004 (BH)

Schulhoff: Jazz Suite for Orchestra, Op. 37
Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40
Dvorák: Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70



I can’t stop replaying mental tapes of the final decisive measures of James Conlon’s virile and terrifically robust Dvorák Seventh Symphony, one of a hugely satisfying trio of works in a concert titled Silenced Voices II. The Dvorák is filled with intoxicating Czech dance rhythms that Conlon and the Los Angeles Philharmonic punched out with taut and sweeping authority. In between are moments of grace and nostalgia, such as the Tchaikovsky-esque waltz in the third movement that seemed to nod and flow deliciously, with some excellent work from the orchestra’s clarinets. The ensemble as a whole sounded magnificently confident, all the way through the work’s blazing conclusion.

I was not familiar with this Mendelssohn concerto, but was completely won over by Jonathan Biss and his fleet, graceful technique. He is making news because of his age – a shiny twenty-three – but he is also making news because, based on this outing, he is a pianist to watch. If a few of the relentless runs had the occasional missed note, overall this was an eye-opening performance, notable for its quiet elegance and restraint. Where some young artists try to impress with pounding virtuosity, Biss seems to hold some cards close to the chest, not trying to show all of his tricks in one pass. He does not shy away from the theatrical, almost flying off the bench during decisive chords, accompanied by his lean hands leaping up into the air as if they had been stung by the keyboard. (I didn’t find it distracting, but some might.) But it was all highly enjoyable, and Conlon and the orchestra provided acutely sensitive support.

Conlon began the evening with some well-chosen remarks on Erwin Schulhoff and his life that ended in a concentration camp in Terezienstadt. But before this tragic end, he apparently delighted in playing the shocking new boy on the block, reveling in words and music designed to raise the hackles of conservative readers and listeners. With engaging and dry good humor, Conlon went to great pains to prepare the audience for some of Schulhoff’s slightly incendiary lines like: “I enjoy sparkling wine, and women enjoy sperm.” Now, if no sparkling wine or sperm were evident in this charming Jazz Suite, the piece nevertheless is clearly the work of an insouciant voice that was born to be an artistic gnat, buzzing around the status quo. The work seems related to some by Ibert and Milhaud, with similar comic timing, but perhaps even more smirking black humor. The reduced orchestra – more of a large chamber-music ensemble – played with spirit and clarity that only enhanced Schulhoff’s precise effects, including ratchet and slide whistle in the percussion section. Conlon perfectly caught the work’s inherent tension between its high spirits and the sober subtext.

I’ll say it again and again: nothing wrong with warhorses, until they crowd out opportunities to hear virtually unknown delights like this one. As a coda to all this, one of Schulhoff’s other works that Conlon mentioned, and one that I sincerely hope to hear at some point in my concert-going lifetime is the Sonata Erotica, for soprano, out-of-tune piano, and water faucet.

Bruce Hodges

Picture: James Conlon, © Los Angeles Philharmonic

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