Pianist Andre Watts thrilled a sold-out crowd Saturday night at the Palace Theatre in his first appearance with the Albany Symphony Orchestra in 18 years.
Watts gave Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 (1881), one of the most formidable concertos in the repertoire, a subtle, thoughtful, many-layered performance that captured the work’s lyricism rather than its dark, heavy drama. Certainly, there was some of that especially in the first movement, but overall, Watts showed remarkable restraint never to play those passages too loudly or too weighty.
He did everything with great confidence and an unforced manner and showed a skill that was always on top of any technical demands, clearly and precisely executed and ever in control. His wide and subtle dynamic range — from the most delicate softness to a brisk forcefulness — made for interesting listening. The crowd thought so, too, applauding after every movement.
The majestic first movement had many magical moments, while the second had great sweetness and lift, with Watts singing the melody with great style. The slow third movement was done with much tenderness, longing and in subtle colors. The finale was delicate, frothy and sparkling with an expansive sway.
The orchestra under conductor David Alan Miller followed Watts’ lead and gave strong support. In the long orchestral introductions, Miller set up Watts’ entrance in a sensitive and solid way.
Watts was the entire second half of the performance. For the first half, Miller said he deliberately chose pieces that were bubbly and light, to offset the Brahms. The concert opened with Verdi’s dramatic Overture to “La Forza Del Destino.” Miller used strong phrasing and spatial vigor. The strings and woodwinds were silken and the brass robust.
Dan Visconti’s “Black Bend” (2005) was a kind of ghostly delta blues set up mostly in the strings, with many sound effects. It ended sounding like a huge machine gasping out its last steam. The reading was a little disconnected, but the audience liked it.
Much more familiar was Johann Strauss’ famous “Emperor Waltz” and his “Pleasure Train Polka.” Miller took his time in the first, allowing the music to evolve and the phrases to breathe, and captured its swirl. Then, donning a conductor’s cap and a whistle, it was all aboard for the vivacious polka.