The dictionary defines “prodigy” as: a young person endowed with exceptional abilities. Synonyms include: genius, virtuoso, wunderkind, wonder child, boy or girl wonder.
When the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra decided to title this past weekend’s concert, Prodigy, they nailed it. Wunderkind pianist Kevin Chen stole the show not only with his polished performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, but also with his symphonic work entitled Loud Sense.
The evening opened with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major, written when the composer was 13 or 14 years old. It was an apt choice—to compare the work of the quintessential musical prodigy of the 18th century with the work of a 21st century prodigy. Mozart’s music was well written and formally sound with sensible and appropriate orchestration.
The first movement, Allegro, was effervescent with teasing humour; the second movement, Andante, was elegant and understated; the third movement, a Menuetto and Trio, was stately with perfectly executed string section trills; the fourth movement, Allegro molto, was a delightful and fast paced rondo. The OSO’s performance was polished, light and charming—the perfect concert opener.
Next, twelve year-old concert pianist Kevin Chen made his way on stage to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. Now, a nine-foot Steinway is dwarfing to even full-grown adults—with Chen it was positively miniaturizing. And yet, what Chen lacked in physical size he made up for in a no-nonsense stage presence. As soon as he placed his hands upon the instrument, all thought of his youth vanished: Chen played with conviction, surety of memory and excellent coaching.
Listening to the performance with eyes closed, there was no tell-tale gaffe or drop in sound that would mark the performer as any but a professional. Scale passages sparkled, melodies soared and Chen more than merited his standing ovation at the end of the performance. His encore, La Campanella by Franz Liszt, was absolutely enthralling and brought the audience surging to its feet for a second ovation.
After intermission, the OSO performed Chen’s orchestral work, Loud Sense. The writing was texturally simple with layering of melodies. Chen didn’t shy away from dissonance or angularity and in this way displayed maturity in the composition. The orchestration showed intelligence and good taste and illustrated the composer’s delight in playing with tone colour. Of particular note was a lovely English Horn solo and his use of harp. From the program notes provided by Chen himself, the last portion of the work: “… is like the crazy thoughts and flashbacks that one who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder experiences.”
Kudos to maestra Rosemary Thomson and the OSO for programming his music—quite a win for such a young composer. This is definitely a young man who will make a big noise in the world.
The final number of the concert was Igor Stravinsky’s Suite from Pulcinella. Originally written as a ballet at the request of Russian choreographer Sergei Diaghilev, Stravinsky later arranged the music as a suite for orchestra. The work is based on the music of Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and the resulting eight movement suite is 18th century Italian music with a 20th century Russian accent. Maestra Thomson conducted with an excellent understanding of style and the resulting performance was honest and heartfelt. Kudos to the bassoonist Karmen Doucette for her dazzling playing in the Gavotta, and to Concert Mistress Rachel Kristenson for her sparkling solos throughout the work.
Congratulation to the OSO for a thoroughly charming and inspiring concert. Already looking forward to the next Masterworks offering: Triomphe!
Anita Perry is a concert reviewer living in the Okanagan. Perry’s review covers the Symphony’s Penticton performance.