Symphony review: Conductor Holly Choe, with pianist Charlie Albright, is a refreshing encounter with showings of fruitful career

By Larry Lapidus
The Spokesman-Review
January 21, 2024

Having traveled the world making music, studying with acknowledged masters and performing in starry venues with noted ensembles, two young musicians took the stage of the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox in the fifth of this season’s Masterworks concerts by the Spokane Symphony.

Recent guests of the orchestra, such as Yo-Yo Ma, Fabio Mechetti and Leonard Slatkin, have shared with us the fruits ofdecades of experience at the highest levels of concert music. t was refreshing to encounter the new repertoire and fresh approaches brought to us by conductor Holly Choe and pianist Charlie Albright this weekend. The evening yielded both a welcome introduction to Britta Bystrom – a composer unknown to most in the audience, as well as new insights into much-loved masterpieces by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Johannes Brahms. At the same time, it demonstrated areas which both artists will likely wish to improve and enhance with the passage of time.

Swedish composer Britta Bystrom (1977-) composed “A Drama in the Air” in 2021 for a conducting competition in which Choe participated.

Choe was engaged with the piece, not only due to its dramatic impact in the concert hall, but because she has committed herself to promoting the works of female composers and felt that it would be a powerful addition to her arsenal.

“A Drama in the Air” is a superbly crafted tone poem based on a story by Jules Verne about a cautious hot-air balloonist who, just as he prepares to lift off, is unexpectedly joined by a stranger who leaps into his basket. The balloonist has planned a bit of unadventurous sight-seeing, while the stranger is determined to test the limits of the balloon, even if death is the result.

Bystrom’s orchestral work is made up of contrasting passages of tranquility and agitation, calling upon Verne’s characters’ fierce debate in the hot-air balloon. Bystrom’s orchestral work is brilliantly and imaginatively scored for large orchestra with augmented percussion, and Choe and the orchestra successfully negotiated its ever-shifting textures. Maintaining a proper balance among the many competing voices in the score was managed less successfully.

Brass and winds tended to dominate, even at times when they are meant to play a role subordinate to the strings.

The performance would have benefited from greater variety in volume; which remained in a narrow dynamic of mezzo forte. This made it difficult to convey the impression of breezy, airborne lightness and transparency the composer intends.

The same impression of dynamic uniformity was felt during the second work of the program, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1901), a popular works in the classical music repertoire and a frequently performed concertos.

Charlie Albright, an outrageously gifted pianist from Centralia, Washington, plainly wished to blow the dust off this thrice-familiar masterpiece, and to display some facets which, in his judgment, do not ordinarily receive sufficient light.

He is certainly qualified to do this, as he possesses a super-fine ear, a keen sense of dramatic structure and a keyboard technique that stands comparison with Rachmaninoff himself, arguably the greatest pianist of his time.

During that time – roughly the first four decades of the 20th century, often called the piano’s “golden age” – a pianist’s technique was not judged merely on the basis of how rapidly and accurately he or she could play scales and octaves.

Rather, it was a pianist’s ability to impart a variety of tonal colors at will to whatever they were playing and the capacity of playing polyphonic passages— that is, passages in which two or more voices are played simultaneously — in which different and distinct tone colors are imparted to each voice. This was the Holy Grail of pianism in the early 20th century, and Rachmaninoff’s many recordings attest to his supremacy in achieving it.

As did a live performance given Friday by Albright during an interview with Choe in the studios of our public radio station, KPBX. Albright improvised(IMPROVISED!) a lovely solo piano piece of several minutes in which he epitomized the “golden age” style of pianism with luscious tone, refined lyricism and polyphonic passages in which independent melodies were played each with its own unique color.

It was something of a disappointment, then, to see and hear Albright on Saturday evening rip through many of Rachmaninoff’s most inventive and effective polyphonic passages, highlighting for effect the principle melody note while smudging or suppressing everything else.

He did this to play at tremendous speed and at other times to create the impression he was carried away by his own passionate involvement with the music and the romantic yearning/angst/torment it expresses. A pianist who is too involved in playing the role of romantic sufferer to play all the notes on the page clearly directs attention away from the music and toward him/herself. This may make for effective theater, but it is not artistry at the level the audience deserves and of which Albright is demonstrably capable.

The virtues of Choe’s conducting – its steadiness, flexibility and divining-rod ability to locate just the right tempo – were much in evidence during the Rachmaninoff concerto, and a crucial counterweight to Albright’s volatility.

Those areas of lesser strength, mostly as regards balance and refinement of dynamics, were present, too, though not to the degree that we saw following the intermission in her traversal of Brahms’ F major Symphony. Though a masterpiece of marvelous structure, filled with melody both stirring and poignant, this work is the least often performed of Brahms’ four works in this form and is widely regarded as the most elusive and challenging to interpret.

Keeping its many elements in balance, allowing it to stand as a convincing, coherent artistic statement was found a daunting task even by Arturo Toscanini, arguably the greatest conductor in history, who was dissatisfied to the end of his long career with his own performances of this work.

Little wonder, then, that at the start of what one hopes will be a long and fruitful career, Choe has not yet arrived at an entirely satisfactory interpretation of Brahms Third Symphony. In time, phrasing will become more supple, voice leading clearer, and dynamic variety more pervasive and enlivening.

What we heard Friday evening, both from her and from Albright, however, left no doubt that artists of such energy, such voracious curiosity and honesty can benefit all audiences fortunate enough to listen, as they did us.