By Lawrence Toppman
Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) officials have been close-mouthed about which guest conductors this season have applied for the job of music director. I’d guess Lan Shui isn’t one of them, for three reasons.
First, he retired from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 2019 after 22 seasons as music director; he may not want a permanent position where he’s again expected to lift an orchestra to the next artistic level. Second, he’d be in his late 60s when he started. Conductors have the lifespan of Galapagos tortoises, but the CSO may want to go with someone younger for the long run. Third, he told WDAV last week how much he enjoys his current life of guest conducting.
So his concerts this weekend with the CSO may represent our only chance to hear him. He led a meaty piece he recorded 15 years ago with the Singapore Symphony: Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, which he played with unfailing passion across a span of a little more than an hour. (Rachmaninov sanctioned cuts, and Eugene Ormandy – his friend and champion with the Philadelphia Orchestra – made about eight minutes’ worth. I’m with Ormandy.)
Lan recorded all of Rachmaninov’s orchestral works with his Singapore crew and obviously loves this composer. His introductory remarks set the symphony up as a voyage from emotional despondence and self-doubt to triumph, and that’s what he gave us.
He delivered the piece with a combination of welcome vigor and excessive languor. He drove the orchestra briskly through fast passages, building to tremendous climaxes. Elsewhere, he slowed way down, which let us hear orchestral voices clearly but drained passages of momentum. If the third movement adagio unfurled at a well-played crawl, the more extroverted passages never lacked luster.
He’d already established that format in Samuel Barber’s Overture to “The School for Scandal” at the start of the program. Its bustling opening, which represents the buzzing of gossips in Richard Sheridan’s play, bristled with energy, but the romantic theme in the middle of the piece lost its nimbleness at a heavy-footed pace.
Lan proved a sympathetic supporter to pianist Mari Kodama in Felix Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, a work as shiny, superficially attractive and hollow as a Christmas ornament. Mendelssohn finished eight concertos: The Second Violin Concerto – his last concerto, the one we all know — deserves its status as a masterpiece, but the rest can be lumped in with other glittering showcases turned out by 19th-century composers.
That’s no reflection on Kodama. She gave us bravura runs in the opening movement, attempted futilely to wring poetry from the central andante and thundered through the strutting, percussive finale. I own recordings by Murray Perahia and Rudolf Serkin, two of the greatest pianists of the last century, and they don’t get much more out of it.
Kodama’s performance mainly made me want to hear what she’d do with a meaningful work. Her recorded legacy includes all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos; perhaps we’ll be lucky enough another time to get one of those.
Pictured: Lan Shui, condutor; by Chris Christodoulou/BBC Proms London.