The program of Liszt, Chopin, and Shostakovich presented by conductor Joseph Giunta and the Des Moines Symphony this past weekend was an exploration of the expressive topography of each work. Beyond the primary musical experience, the Symphony shaped a performance brimming with musical, poetic, and historical meaning which was greatly assisted by the eloquent playing of young pianist Jia Cheng Xiong.
Xiong’s performance of Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21 was his first performance with the Des Moines Symphony but clearly not his last. Maestro Giunta is clearly dedicated to the young performer after hearing him in Aspen last year – even encouraging him to give a shout out to his father from the stage. Xiong, belying his age, plays with technical mastery and eschews overt ostentation. The opening chords of the Larghetto, alternating between the descending strings and the rising winds, blossomed precisely into the entrance of the piano overflowing with pathos. Xiong is the opposite of a heavy-handed pianist (although one can be sure that he lets his gifts shine in heavier repertoire as well.) He is fond of tenderness in the line and tended toward grace and ease more often than not in this performance. This impressive evocation was particularly demonstrated in the opening ascending solo scale and mirrored in the final A flat arpeggio figure of the Larghetto. The Symphony strings paralleled Xiong’s style quite well taking their moments to open up in between each exquisite piano line.
The Symphony strings are to be commended for their ability to create a gauzy, ethereal texture not only in the Chopin with Mr. Xiong but also throughout Liszt Les Préludes. There were many instances of these gossamer string sounds while still proving a core to the sound that allowed them to transition clearly to more ominous colors as the repetitive woodwind tones urge the line forward to the rapturous brass fanfare. The poem which inspired Liszt’s work asks, “What is life but a series of preludes to that unknown hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?” The various styles, or preludes, inherent in the piece were clearly carried out by the musicians in the ensemble with extraordinary sensitivity to the overall character elicited by the Lamartine text. The horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, and percussion were on the perfect edge of unbridled in the execution of the final moments of the work.
Although written eighty-five years later, the Shostakovich Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 54 provided many moments to hear the bird song amongst the felling of the trees. Though there was a clear distinction between the fine sound in the Liszt and Chopin which morphed into the more edgy and aggressive sounds necessary for Shostakovich’s symphony exploring suffering and adversity enveloped in feelings of hope, spring, and humor (albeit a biting one.) Beautifully nuanced solos from the flute, english horn, and e flat clarinet in the Largo and Allegro gave way to a blistering Presto which was fully punctuated by Maestro Giunta’s animated leaping on the podium in the final measures.
Overall there was a sense of palpable contour to each work on this recent Des Moines Symphony program from the diaphanous to the impenetrable. Each clearly related to its textual or historical context and they were performed in a way that allowed the audience to substantively connect with the music itself. As the Symphony took time to announce their next season during this concert, we should be looking forward to more musical experiences like this one in the near future.