CSO, with Serkin, takes place as center of the action in season-opening performance

Guest pianist Peter Serkin accompanies the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Roberto Minczuk in the CSO’s season-opening performance Saturday evening in the Amphitheater.
Photo by Adam Birkan.

Zachary Lewis | Guest Critic

The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra had much to celebrate Saturday night, and it did so in resplendent fashion.

Playing in the Amphitheater on a pleasant evening, the orchestra and guest conductor Roberto Minczuk sounded even hotter than the air outside as they launched the 2012 Season, welcomed a renowned pianist and even hinted at the upcoming Independence Day with the year’s first performance of the national anthem. No wonder the concert was broadcast live on Buffalo radio.

But it wasn’t the many occasions — including the start of longstanding principal cellist Chaim Zemach’s final season, or even the ensemble itself — that commanded the lion’s share of the attention. No, beyond question, that honor fell to pianist Peter Serkin, the soloist in Brahms’ titanic Piano Concerto No. 1.

One of the most distinguished pianists of his or any generation and an artist of probing insight, Serkin turned in a performance of tremendous character, one in which his personality and every element of a massive score coalesced perfectly.

His was an uneven performance, in the best possible sense. Even, in this case, meaning flat, smooth or uneventful.

In the first movement, for instance, a starker boundary between the two principal domains would have been hard to imagine. The secondary, more rhapsodic theme enjoyed lavish, almost excessive space, as Serkin spun out its melodies with tremendous feeling at a pace best described as stately. With the principal theme and its development, however, the pianist rained down chords with thrilling, torrential force.

Likewise, his Rondo was no mad, single-minded dash to the finish, as it so often is with other, less mature artists. Explosive, fiery energy abounded, to be sure, but with Serkin, there were also peaceful interludes along the way, patches of sheer joy to be savored.

One might call Serkin’s reading of the central Adagio “even,” in that it was constantly, unfailingly expressive. Opting again for a slower tempo, a choice that ruled his entire performance, the pianist set about achieving total serenity and partnering to scintillating effect with his woodwind colleagues.

As for the matter of tuning — explained in the weekend Daily article previewing the concert — that too was uneven, in that it wasn’t what most artists use or prefer in concert. But neither did the slight tang it produced grate the ears, or even stand out terribly. If anything, it gave Serkin a certain and helpful tonal edge over the orchestra behind him, in a work where murkiness can be a problem.

Next to the Brahms, Beethoven’s generally lighter Symphony No. 8 stood in sharp but welcome contrast. What’s more, the performance by the CSO under Minczuk, music director of Canada’s Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and principal conductor of the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra, accentuated everything that makes the work attractive.

In addition to the usual grace and liveliness almost every performance of the Eighth evinces, Minczuk’s Saturday with the men and women in white bore the rarer elements of drive, raw zest and dramatic intensity, illustrating how much potential drama resides in Beethoven’s lesser-known symphonies and those of a purely abstract nature.

Sharp attacks and crisp textures were ever-present, but in the hands of Minczuk and the CSO, the music also benefited from strong melodic profiles, thoughtful shading, and charming contributions from the horns, woodwinds and timpani. The conductor wasn’t just interested in dynamism, after all. He also recognized the need for delicacy and subtlety. It was the opposite of a dull, one-dimensional account.

Also featured on Saturday’s program: another popular work by Brahms, the “Academic Festival Overture,” an artful conglomeration of tunes sung by university students that had earned its composer an honorary degree. Here, though, for once, the work fulfilled its original function, serving as an overture to a true academic festival, namely the 2012 Season.

Once again, Minczuk declined to give a casual, offhand performance. On the contrary, his reading Saturday night was robust and patently well-conceived, with melodies emerging from the sumptuous texture of the strings in bold, fetching relief.

The same might now be said of the CSO. As July begins and a new season at the Institution gains momentum, the orchestra has taken its place at the center of the action.

Lewis is music critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio.