Music review: Pianist Ax gives crowd thrills

Legendary pianist Emanuel Ax gave a large crowd plenty of thrills Saturday night at the Palace Theat
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Legendary pianist Emanuel Ax gave a large crowd plenty of thrills Saturday night at the Palace Theatre to help open the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s annual gala. He played not only two of the programmed works but gave an encore of an additional eight minutes, and all of it was stunning.

The concert under music director David Alan Miller opened with von Weber’s dramatic “Der Freischuetz Overture.” Although the orchestra sounded a little rough, Miller took moderate tempos and got more expression from the players through a subtle level of dynamics and phrasing.

Ax came out to play Mozart’s Concerto No. 14 in E-flat Major (1784) with a purity of execution that was as refined as a Japanese etching. The three-movement concerto is sunny with clever commentary between piano and orchestra and even a bit of chromaticism. Ax’s light touch, precise rhythms, spare pedal, and subtle nuances were supported by a deep musical intelligence that found charming and magical connections in every phrase. Miller was especially attentive and allowed Ax to linger lovingly over many passages. Balances were perfect. Ax seemed pleased with the collaboration and was all smiles as he took his bow with Miller.

Jessie Montgomery’s “Source Code” for string orchestra was originally written for string quartet. Her reworking for larger forces made it a long meditative spinning out of a spiritual-like melody that mesmerized. Montgomery is the ASO’s new composer/educator.

Verdi’s ballet music from his 1871 opera “Aida” provided a splash of color with the addition of the brass and a sparkling piccolo solo. The short selection set the stage for Franck’s “Symphonic Variations” and Ax’s return as soloist.

The 1886 work is dramatic, romantic and a sometime introspective conversation between the orchestra and soloist that builds slowly in technical complexity and dynamic levels. Ax took his time with a tight control over those levels. Phrases were sculpted with care. An ethereal, mysterious segment with trills blossomed into a sunny final walk through a garden of colors. Miller and the orchestra provided strong support.

After huge applause, Ax gave his encore: Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor. Big dramatic octave passages that were almost Beethovian led to fast flying filigree and marvelous melody, all of which Ax was in supreme control of.

The ASO’s official season opening is Nov. 7 in a program of Stucky, Sibelius with violinist Benjamin Beilman, and Tchaikovsky.

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