The Morning Call
Allentown, PA
Nov 17, 2009

Allentown Symphony's Brahms Fest features fiery "Frenergy'

By Steve Siegel

Often we go into a concert with questions.  Is that relatively unknown soloist really any good?  Does that contemporary piece really warrant placement on a program with two giants of the repertoire?

In the case of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra's Brahms Festival last weekend at Symphony Hall (I attended the Sunday concert), the answer to both questions is a resounding yes.

Rarely has a concert opened with such an explosive work as Canadian composer John Estacio's appropriately named "Frenergy," here given its Pennsylvania premier.  With thunderous percussion and propulsive rhythms, it was as spellbinding as a fireworks display.  Conductor Diane Wittry extracted a no-holds-barred performance from the orchestra in this very cinematic-sounding piece, which often evoked the chilling excitement of a Bernard Hermann film score.

Piano soloist Eduardus Halim proved to be an unexpected master of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto.  In this thoughtful, finely detailed performance, he seemed to approach each phrase as a musical meditation, like a prayer.  Mostly introspective and restrained, he could lash out with fury when called for, especially in the soaring first movement cadenza, and the sweeping arpeggios of the allegro.  He played the largo with reverential delicacy, and while the strings here were mostly solid, the woodwinds seemed strangely unfocused.

As an encore, Halim performed Liszt's fiendishly difficult Transcendental Etude No. 4, the "Mazeppa," with fiery passion.  With its jumps and spans of more than an octave, and its demands of incredible speed and endurance, it would have been remarkable enough to be performed as part of a recital, let alone to be played after the physical demands of the Beethoven concerto.

Brahms' Symphony No. 4, in all its solemn majesty, was the final piece on the program.  Its opening phrases, which for me always recall towering ocean swells, ominous for the vast unseen depths beneath them, were boldly painted.  The entire performance was beefy and full-bodied, with wonderful horn and woodwind color in the second movement, and sheer exuberance in the third.  In the final movement, beginning like a funeral dirge and dripping with pathos throughout, one could really feel Brahms' relentless, often heroic, but ultimately tragic struggle with fate.

An added bonus to this concert was the symphony's first use of two large projection screens, one on each side of the proscenium, onto which video cameras displayed close-ups of the musicians performing.  It was a very welcome touch to an already exceptional concert experience.