Montero's fabulous talent was evident when, as an encore, she offered to improvise on any tune the audience suggested.
To begin with, there is a 1999 work by the rising American composer Jennifer Higdon. Titled blue cathedral, it is a study in kaleidoscopic orchestral colors, meant to simultaneously evoke a great glass cathedral in the sky and to pay tribute to a deceased brother. Under conductor John DeMain, the MSO gave it a careful and finely honed rendition.
But is was easily lost in all that followed. Beethoven's official Piano Concerto No. 1 (actually composed after No. 2 but published before it) has always struck me as one of the landmarks of the composer's early maturity. Written in the extroverted key of C major, it takes the ball from Mozart and runs with a young man's confidence.
The guest artist, Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero, is an enormously gifted musician, but she seems to have not yet worked out an integrated interpretation of this work. After a singularly restrained, cautious and even stiff pacing of the introduction by DeMain, Montero launched off on her own with a meticulously played but rather grandly conceived treatment of the opening movement. In the second movement, Mozartian grace yields to romanticized pretension, almost anticipating Rachmaninoff. Only in the finale does youthful buoyancy receive its due, if at the expense of an unusually fast tempo. In all, this was not a balanced or consistent conception of the total score.
But Montero's fabulous talent was evident when, as an encore, she offered to improvise on any tune the audience suggested. All the Friday house could come up with was "On, Wisconsin." After getting her bearings, she met this trivial challenge with an ambitious fantasia in the styles of Beethoven and then Scott Joplin.
For the closing half of the program, DeMain's enterprising ear for neglected works that deserve attention came to bear with Dvorák's Symphony No. 6 in D major. So much of this great and fecund composer's huge output is sadly ignored. Of his nine symphonies, we are likely to hear, at least in concert performances, only the last three. But the earlier ones offer so much to be discovered, and chief among them is No. 6, a mature synthesis of Czech spirit and Brahmsian structure. (No. 4, too, deserves some attention on those grounds.)
I am used to exuberant performances of this score, and at first I found DeMain's pacing of the opening movement a little too staid. But his careful attention to passing ideas gives special meaning to many lovely melodic turns. His treatment of the pastoral second movement is a rustic tone-poem all in itself. DeMain's Furiant third movement is clearly modeled on the composer's famous Slavonic Dances, but the little slowdowns in its trio middle section are exquisite bird calls. His finale blazes, although the excess loudness of the brasses at dramatic points seems a little exaggerated.
In all, this is a carefully conceived and genuinely committed performance of a masterful work we are too rarely permitted to hear. That fact alone makes this program a very special one for me. It will be performed again on Saturday, Jan. 19, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 20, at 2:30 p.m.