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Symphony Pro Musica wins with Mahler, Beethoven.

Byline: John Zeugner


WESTBORO - Symphony Pro Musica's concert Sunday afternoon at the Mill Pond school centered on two very different - and very challenging - farewells. The first was Gustav Mahler's sublime meditation about his impending death, "Das Lied von der Erde," and the second was pianist George Li's exit from virtuosic boy wonder to international artist, through the lyric poetry of Beethoven's 4th piano concerto.

Pairing these two major compositions was an entirely typical move from Music Director and Conductor Mark Churchill, who loves to push the envelope. He got, again typically, amazing performances from his musicians. Hearing this concert was easily worth a lifetime of digging out of frozen snow banks, as now seems inexorable.

In 1907, Mahler - ill and exhausted - happened upon a new translation of poets from China's T'ang Dynasty, in particular the work of Li Bai (also called Li Po, or Li Bo) whose captivating lyrics celebrating life and drunkenness apparently stirred Mahler's creativity. He used the poems in a song cycle for contralto and tenor, with a very full orchestra, including two harps, and fashioned music that swoons and swells in remarkable beauty.

In the moving final song, "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell"), mezzo soprano Gale Fuller soared above the orchestra with pure shimmering tones, surely eliciting tears. Tenor Alan Schneider was equally adroit in the earlier songs; his enunciated German was the clearest and easiest to follow that this reviewer has heard. In the course of the songs Mahler provides solos for instruments, and SPM's principals came through brilliantly. Ruth Washington Mayhew (flute) and Yhasmin Valenzuela (clarinet) deservedly got the first call, and were quickly followed by Jennifer Hyde (horn), Tom Kazior (bass clarinet), Robin Hillyard (bassoon), and Louis Anderson (trumpet). Hillyard also supplied the superb program notes, including a separate German-English translation from the original Chinese.

Fans of the piano concerto repertory celebrate the pastoral lyricism of Beethoven's 4th, and argue that negotiating its simplicity and elegance (like that of Mozart's 24th piano concerto) requires seasoning, mature thoughtfulness. So it's a gamble for a young pianist to take on the subtleties of the piece. Prodigies prefer to concentrate on, as George Li has, the virtuosic flash of Liszt, Chopin, Saint-Saens and Mendelssohn concertos.

In those, technique can compensate for interpretative emptiness.

Heretofore George Li, although clearly sui generis, always came on stage in his diminutive presence and smilingly engaging personality as the boy next door who, after climbing on his piano bench, waved an invisible cape and became a super wizard of the keyboard.

Virtuosity carried all before it, but the Beethoven requires much more.

The notes bespeak transcended affliction, liberation from suffering, and wholesale embrace of the salvation of exquisitely formed sound. From the opening note - alone among Beethoven's concertos the piano begins the piece - it seemed Li had passed from prodigy to genuine artist.

You could quarrel with his intonation - at times too strident, at times too light - but at every instance you were confronted with the astonishing fact that, though barely 16, Li was spinning out an interpretation that could be measured against those produced by much older artists. He had crossed a threshold between dazzling technique and artistic vision. His mastery of the first movement's cadenza generated fierce excitement and commitment, his fluency during the supremely challenging second movement andante, and of course his technical panache in the finale established him as viable with the most distinguished company. And having just won major international competitions with the Cleveland Orchestra, and in New York, young Li was signaling that he merited, and doubtless will get, the most professional orchestral accompaniment.

Playing Beethoven's 4th was a way of moving on, saying farewell to SPM. Doubtless sentiment will occasionally bring him back, but as SPM's President Dan Sweeney remarked to the reviewer afterwards, "Now that George has an International Management Agency, I wonder if SPM is even on their Rolodex?" SPM, as superb incubator of world-class talent, surely ought to be.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Feb 1, 2011
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