Pianist Biss masterful in thrilling BSO opener

Posted Sept. 29, 2008, at 9:26 p.m.

In his Bangor Daily News interview last week, Jonathan Biss said he felt that Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 was one of the most thrilling pieces for a pianist to perform with a symphony orchestra. When he played it Sunday afternoon in the Bangor Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening concert at Peakes Auditorium, it was clear that it was thrilling not just for him, but for the audience as well, who applauded the pianist with a standing ovation.

The Brahms concerto is an early work from the German Romantic composer, arranged in the traditional concerto three-movement format. After a rousing, suspenseful first movement, Biss slid into the slow-building adagio second movement, which could have been sluggish and strained; instead, it was elegiac and exquisite, especially in the hands of a masterfully sensitive stylist such as Biss. A boisterous coda injected a shot of spirit for the finale, like an exclamation point.

When he performs, Biss is full of nervous energy. Nervous not in the sense that he himself is nervous — he has no reason to be, as he plays flawlessly — rather, that he’s so emotionally and intellectually invested in the music he’s playing that he’s almost jumping out of his skin with excitement. You can see that he’s feeling it in every cell in his body, which only adds to the immediacy and intensity of a live performance.

The BSO started the concert with a joyful, freewheeling take on the first eight of Antonin Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. The dances span many different traditional styles, including the polka, polonaise and mazurka, inspired by the folk music of Eastern Europe, Dvorak’s homeland. Maestro Xiao-Lu Li kept it light, bouncy and festive, giving the impression of each dance being like a short, funny story, recalled in rapid succession.

As was the case for much of the previous BSO season, Li has shown a fondness for romantic, folk-inspired compositions, favoring pieces that are both poetically evocative and technically difficult. Oboist Louie Hall must be credited for his lively, precise playing, though the BSO in general was in fine form. The concert overall was a terrifically entertaining start to the orchestra’s 113th season.

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