The Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra was the headline act in Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday, Nov. 6, and there was no denying the vibrancy and flair of the orchestra’s playing under Music Director Jacek Kaspszyk. But the true star of the evening was elsewhere.
That would be Seong-Jin Cho, the remarkable young South Korean pianist whose solo turn in Chopin’s First Piano Concerto marked the presence of an eloquent and genuinely accomplished artist.
We can never have too many of those, am I right?
This 22-year-old virtuoso came on the scene a year ago with a victory in the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw. And ordinarily, being a competition winner is an ambivalent recommendation at best — too often it bespeaks a ferocious technical arsenal coupled with conventional or even unformed interpretive notions.
But on the strength of Sunday’s concert, presented by the San Francisco Symphony as part of the Great Performers Series, Cho has to be reckoned an exception to that rule. To a formidable keyboard technique, he adds both sensitivity and a quirky interpretive personality — just the ingredients an artist needs to transcend the glut of everyday musical performers.
In the Chopin concerto — and even more strikingly in his encore, the composer’s A-Flat Polonaise, Op. 53 — that meant taking the virtuoso demands of his assignment and using them to his own expressive ends. Sure, Cho got around the keyboard with remarkable dexterity, dispatching the elaborate figuration of the concerto’s outer movements without a hitch and thundering his way eloquently through the massive chords of the Polonaise.
But along the way, he made sure to give every phrase, every paragraph and every formal section a distinctive shape and direction that brought it out of the realm of pure showmanship. The first movement of the concerto dropped into reverie with charming abruptness; the vivacious dance rhythms of the finale seemed to be charged with an amused awareness of their own extravagance.
Most enchanting of all was the concerto’s central slow movement, which plunged a listener into the composer’s reflective inner world without ever sounding hokey or obvious. To hear Cho breathe tenderness and freedom into this music while giving it a sturdy rhythmic profile was a striking thing.
The Philharmonic, which made its first local appearance four years ago under Kaspszyk’s predecessor, Antoni Wit, continues to be a wondrous and undervalued orchestra. The beauty and character of its brass and woodwind principals shone in the spotlight of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s “Polish Melodies,” an appealing four-movement suite that opened the program.
After intermission, Kaspszyk led a performance of Brahms’ First Symphony that was at once robust and refined. It boasted plenty of rhythmic momentum in the opening movement (where Kaspszyk won my heart by taking the repeat, always the sign of a conductor who knows his trade), as well as gracefully translucent textures in the slow movement.
The encore was a brisk and vividly colored account of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture — a surprising and frankly flattering tribute from a touring orchestra to its host country. It was a delightful close to an all-around rewarding evening.