On Thursday, September 22, American Classical Orchestra (ACO) opened its season with a stunning program featuring works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, and Carl Philipp Emanuel (C.P.E.) Bach—Johann Sebastian Bach’s most prolific son. After ACO’s Artistic Director and Founder, Maestro Thomas Crawford offered illuminating explanations and, with the orchestra, musical examples from the concert, the program began with C.P.E. Bach’s Symphony in F Major in vibrant energy and phrases on ascending pitches. Full of musical surprises, this symphony proved an unexpected thrilling journey. In the first movement (Allegro di Molto) it flowed from rousing to caressing to taking unpredictable turns into solemn lyricism, unusually modulating, and suddenly gliding into the elegiac, deep, and soulful second movement (Larghetto), then jolting the listener into liveliness with unforeseen changes in dynamics and speed in the last movement (Presto). Throughout what seems like a rebellious piece that dances back and forth between the Baroque and Classical, Maestro Crawford kept the orchestra united in crispness, legato, and shifting dynamics, from its full-blown integrated sonoral power to various instrumental voices that shaped certain phrases.
Petra Somlai on fortepiano with Maestro Thomas Crawford and American Classical Orchestra
C.P.E. Bach’s refreshing Symphony set the stage for a special musical jewel of the evening: Hungarian virtuoso Petra Somlai’s breathtaking performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto on an R.J. Regier replica of a Carl Graf Viennese fortepiano, similar to one Beethoven was gifted in 1825. After the orchestra’s well-paced, strong introduction, Somlai instantly pulled us into Beethoven’s sonoral universe in a robust beginning followed by the softest notes in her delicate touches. One could have heard a pin drop in the entire hall as everyone seemed enraptured by the ethereal pianissimi emerging from the fortepiano. Less ample in power than the piano of today, the fortepiano sounded warm, and intimate, with a subtle sonoral resemblance to the harpsichord, especially in its lower notes.
Maestro Thomas Crawford with American Classical Orchestra and Petra Somlai on fortepiano
Nimbly, Somlai weaved veils of sound up and down the fortepiano’s range, astounding the public with her precision in speed and trills as with her sensitively accented imaginative phrasing. The orchestral textures swelled passionately, and at the end of the first movement, the audience could no longer follow the custom of waiting until the end of the concerto to applaud, and broke into ovations. In the second movement (Largo), Somlai took her time to hypnotize the audience through her filigree, undulant playing, and the strings, horns, and winds responded dazzlingly, casting a spell of beautiful interweaving sound threads. The final movement (Rondo) brought orchestra and fortepiano to full force while Somlai’s agility shimmered and awed.
American Classical Orchestra conducted by Maestro Thomas Crawford with Petra Somlai on fortepiano
At the beginning, Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major seemed to emerge magically out of the air, flirty and melodious, turning dynamic and playful in the first movement (Allegro). A lilting Mozartean-like melody started the second movement, and Maestro Crawford drew deep colors out of the orchestra that seemed like deliberately rich brushstrokes on a canvas, creating meltingly beautiful moments of floating lyricism. The forceful, tumultuous beginning of the Menuetto, the third movement, subsided into a more settled pace and the Allegro vivace finale turned fiery and vigorous after a playful start, offering an array of exhilarating colorful musical textures.
This was truly a brilliant, exciting opening to the new season for Maestro Crawford and American Classical Orchestra. It makes one count the days to their next concert.
All photos are by Roland Pugh
Top photo: American Classical Orchestra conducted by Maestro Thomas Crawford