In a Last-Minute Podium Substitution, Kensho Watanabe Emerges a Star

12/04/2017

Beethoven, Bates, Mozart, Liszt: Mason Bates (electronics), Daniil Trifonov (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra / Kensho Watanabe (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 8.4.2017. (BJ)

Beethoven – Overture and Finale from Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Op.43
BatesAlternative Energy
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.9 in E flat major, K.271
LisztPrometheus, Symphonic Poem No.5

All the buzz in advance had centered on the Philadelphia Orchestra premiere of a supposedly exploratory work by Mason Bates, and on the prospect of hearing a Mozart concerto with one of today’s most spectacularly rising young pianists, Daniil Trifonov, as soloist.

Well, man proposes, but bugs dispose. Having learned just three hours before concert time that, with music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin felled by a virus, he was going to have to take over on the podium, Kensho Watanabe ended up as practically the star of the show.

The Philadelphia Orchestra must count itself fortunate in the possession of this young Japanese-American Curtis graduate as its assistant conductor. Now serving his first season in that post, Watanabe covered himself with glory, and as it turned out, the Beethoven and Liszt segments of the program made the strongest impression. Led with a combination of authority, charisma, and technical aplomb rarely found in a young conductor, the main Allegro of Beethoven’s Prometheus overture zipped along with crisply zestful clarity of articulation, and Liszt’s treatment of the same subject—no less powerful in expression—was revealed as one of that composer’s most firmly and economically constructed symphonic poems.

Much has been said and written to characterize Philadelphia-born Mason Bates, composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 2010 to 2015 and now at Washington’s Kennedy Center, as the exponent of a cutting-edge blend of acoustic and electronic sounds. His six-year-old Alternative Energy is indeed a skillful essay in that genre. But it is scarcely more forward-looking than the kind of thing I was hearing in New York’s Town Hall fully 50 years ago, under the artistic leadership, if memory serves correctly, of Matthew Raimondi, the distinguished violinist and founder of the Composers Quartet.

In those days, we in the audience always felt a bit embarrassed to find ourselves applauding a bank of machines along with the humans on stage. In Bates’s work, technological advances have yielded a less cluttered look to the proceedings. But I found many of the incursions of electronic sound suggestive of nothing so much as fairly inelegant burps, and I was not bowled over by their admittedly smooth interweaving with the orchestral part.

What I had been looking forward to with the keenest anticipation for the evening was my first encounter with the 26-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, already a Philadelphia favorite after his subscription debut here two years ago. In the event, his playing of the solo part in one of Mozart’s most challenging concertos, impeccably correct though it was, left me a tad disappointed. The voluminous finale was carried off with unusual firmness of line and rhythm, but in the exploratory first movement and the deeply dramatic central Andantino, Trifonov seemed content merely to play the notes without contributing much in the way of personal insight into their meaning as music. I look forward to hearing him again in repertoire for which he may feel more vividly sympathetic.

Bernard Jacobson

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