In Ohio, a riveting pianist is a rising star

United StatesUnited States Higdon, Grieg, Brahms: Eva Gevorgyan (piano), Canton Symphony Orchestra / Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Performing Arts Hall, Canton, Ohio, 12.10.2019. (TW)

Jennifer Higdon – blue cathedral

Grieg – Piano Concerto in A minor

Brahms – Symphony No.2 in D Major

On its season opener —and with conductor Gerhardt Zimmermann in the pulpit, as it were — the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) transformed Umstattd Performing Arts Hall into a church with the first of the three works. Written by the acclaimed American composer Jennifer Higdon, blue cathedral (1999) was inspired by the loss of her younger brother, Andrew Blue Higdon, to cancer.

The composer considers cathedrals as symbolic portals, leading from our world into spiritual realms beyond. Throughout this work is the suggestion of a contemplative walk down aisles — past pillars and glittering stained glass windows — under an immense ceiling to a vast blue sky. After some momentary cloudiness, sorrow, and anger, the work ends in a peaceful state of transcendence.

Special attention is given to the flute — which Higdon learned to play when she was 15 — and the clarinet, which was her brother’s instrument. Here, both soloists —flautist Jenny Robinson and clarinetist Ethan Usokin — delivered achingly poignant dialogues amidst soft, shimmering chords from the strings. Eventually the flute faded out, as the clarinet alone progressed into ecstatic quietness. Elegant percussive effects were haunting. Crystalline chimes and bells augmented the sensation of being in a sacred place; at one point, members of the string section gently rotated small Chinese meditation balls, with a timbre evoking distant wind. The orchestra’s reverence was so palpable, it was impossible not to be moved.

While Higdon offered an empyreal journey, Grieg’s Piano Concerto — despite its opening three-octave plunge down the keyboard — is a more earthbound experience, though no less compelling. Over the years, some critical assessments of this work labeled it a tired warhorse. The 16-year-old guest soloist, Eva Gevorgyan, would likely disagree.

There was nothing hackneyed about Gevorgyan, a rising star who offered impeccable technical prowess and clarity, plus emotional intelligence. Even her physical deportment was arresting, as if she had adopted the animated mien of a ballet dancer. When she wasn’t playing, she often gazed dreamily upward, listening intently to the ensemble, arms slowly swaying, hands poised in midair, as if gently grasping Grieg’s phrases.

At the end of the first movement, Gevorgyan’s articulation of the cadenza was a breathtaking display of youthful, sinewy vigor, followed by delicate, nuanced wistfulness in the elegiac Adagio. Her powerful rendering of the majestic finale brought the audience immediately to their feet, causing an encore — Scriabin’s Poeme, Op.32, No.1, an all-too-brief moment of elegance and introspection.

After intermission, Brahms’s Symphony No.2 was a brilliant exposition of the composer’s dizzying array of textures, colors, and rhythms. Still, even after the magnificence of the jubilant finale, Gevorgyan’s riveting Grieg remained in the memory.

Tom Wachunas