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Review: Watts electrifies San Antonio Symphony classical opener

September 22, 2018

San Antonio Symphony Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing revved up the orchestra Friday night for a season-opening classical series concert featuring the return of a celebrity pianist and a program of celebratory, sweeping music.

André Watts’ inspired performance in Grieg’s Piano Concerto was framed by a welcoming short piece of celebration by contemporary composer Anna Clyne and Tchaikovsky’s uplifting Symphony No. 5.

Watts, 72, has appeared several times with the San Antonio Symphony since the 1970s, the last time in 2005. On Friday, he delivered another concerto to remember.

He certainly was well-prepared, having opened the Philadelphia Orchestra’s season the weekend before, also with Grieg’s masterpiece.

Watts played the Steinway with a level of confidence that comes only with long experience. The thunder of the first-movement cadenza gave way to reflective poetry in the adagio. Given his early career history in New York, the bravado and boldness in the final movement seemed to come straight from someone who remains a vivid part of Leonard Bernstein’s legacy.

The orchestra under Lang-Lessing accompanied Watts with vim, vigor and a sense of urgency.

The orchestra was just warming up with Watts. After intermission, the musicians sounded in midseason form for the Tchaikovsky Fifth.

The piece is three movements of struggle against fate and then a final section of victory. It flowed and crackled with precision and flair, with Lang-Lessing controlling the phasing with volume and tempo changes, including a surprise second-movement acceleration. Lang-Lessing balanced the instrumental sections in a way that multiplied the music’s emotional richness.

The French horn section, in particular, never sounded better. It was led by Molly Norcross, whose solo in the second movement was exquisite.

The audience of nearly 1,400 people at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts was greeted in the first work with “Masquerade” by London composer Clyne. The five-minute work, composed for the 2013 “Last Night of the Proms” concert in her native city, shimmered with high, flowing spirits. It was music that would go well with a “Harry Potter” movie.

Clyne’s composition was not the only “Masquerade.” Lang-Lessing surprised the audience with a thrilling orchestral encore after the Tchaikovsky, “Masquerade” by Danish composer Carl Nielsen.

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Tobin Center downtown.

hendrickd53@yahoo.com

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