For Palm Beach Symphony’s second installment in their 2022–23 Masterworks Series, the regional ensemble is featuring the nimble pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who at seventy-four has lost none of the dexterity he has displayed in a performing career spanning more than half a century.
Ohlsson played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 73, the “Emperor,” the composer’s last work in the form. It was composed in 1809, during Napoleon’s siege and subsequent occupation of Vienna. No one wanted to honor Napoleon on that unfortunate occasion, and Beethoven had already come to hate the French emperor for having betrayed the principles of the French Revolution for a new stab at monarchism. In fact, Beethoven had famously crossed out his dedication to Napoleon in his Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica,” when Napoleon became emperor. “Nothing but drums, cannons, men, misery of all sorts” was how Beethoven described his surroundings as he labored away at this piano concerto. He dedicated the work to the Habsburg Archduke Rudolf, a brother of the Austrian emperor and a patron and lifelong friend of Beethoven, but it is uncertain if he would have approved of the post-facto “Emperor” appellation for this or any other theorized reason.
Ohlsson played with an intimacy that belied the work’s grandeur but emphasized its reliance on the piano, which the composer scored to enter the piece much earlier and much more vividly than is generally the case in the genre. The conductor Gerard Schwarz gave him plenty of room to demonstrate his mastery, even to the point of driving the concerto’s finale Rondo: allegro non troppo movement with less power than he might have, to accommodate Ohlsson’s delicate attack. Ohlsson’s artful encore of Chopin’s Waltz in C-Sharp Minor took further advantage of his introspection and sensitivity.
The concerto was prefaced by something akin to Christmas music. Jean Sibelius’s short tone poem Nightride and Sunrise, composed in 1908 for a premiere in St. Petersburg the following year, hardly rises to the top of anyone’s mind when the Finnish composer is named. Indeed, when Schwarz asked his orchestra if any of its members had ever played it before this performance, no hands went up. Likely inspired by a sleigh ride outside Helsinki (another, less probable source of inspiration is the Colosseum in Rome), the tone poem features repetitive string figures suggesting the rhythmic running of the horses pulling the sleigh, while broader woodwinds billow impressions of an Arctic night. By the end, warm horn configurations emulate the sun rising with melting rays after a cold, dark night. The piece lacks the folk idioms that define Sibelius’s symphonic style, but its sweeping impressionism and beguiling subjectivity benefited from Schwarz’s steady hand and the solid orchestral sections under his command.
The second part of the concert was devoted to Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 (1886), called the “Organ Symphony.” Not everyone appreciated the digital organ deployed by the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts. Doug Marshall played competently, but his instrument lacked the resonance and authority of a true concert-hall organ.
That fault notwithstanding, the robust and colorfully Gallic orchestral part emerged in splendid form from the first notes. In the Adagio first movement, Schwarz harnessed his strings with foresight and precision, leading them to a striking crescendo. He tightened the orchestra for the remaining movements, which indulge in gorgeous Romantic chromaticism, an element of the score that Saint-Saëns hoped would defend his French idiom from the overwhelming, titanic music coming from across the Rhine (even if he did dedicate the piece to Franz Liszt). Nothing in this less frequently performed piece, however, seemed beyond the symphony’s skill.