Lan Shui leads difficult BSO program

October 19, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Many of us remember Lan Shui as an immensely likable and talented young conductor who served as an assistant to David Zinman at the Baltimore Symphony between 1992 and 1994. The Chinese-born musician, now in his early 30s, was seasoned by several years at a bigger post with the Detroit Symphony (1994-97). He is now music director of the Singapore Symphony, one of Asia's important orchestras, and has even begun to make some records -- one of which receives an enthusiastic review in the current issue of Gramophone.

Lan Shui returned to Meyerhoff Hall to conduct the orchestra for the first time in more than three years this past Thursday and Friday. It is a pleasure to report that he acquitted himself well in a difficult program that included Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 1 (which the orchestra was performing for the first time since 1972), Mendelssohn's Overture to "Ruy Blas," and works by Richard Strauss.

The Mendelssohn overture received an evocative, stirring reading in which the orchestra's brass shone. In Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration," Lan Shui eschewed superficial dash and brilliance, choosing to emphasize the work's atmosphere, PTC breadth and sense of nobility. This is a young man who knows that what matters in music lies behind the notes.

What Lan Shui does not yet possess is the mastery of putting those notes together that was recently demonstrated by another young guest conductor, Alan Gilbert. Though it is Lan Shui who is the Zinman protege, it is Gilbert who more closely recalls Zinman in his abilities to achieve clarity of ensemble and to negotiate his way through complex rhythmic changes. Beautiful as much of Lan Shui's "Death and Transfiguration" was, his transitions between the music's narrative events were not always seamless. This was also a problem in his performance of the composer's "Rosenkavalier" Suite, in which the conductor strove for a sense of spontaneity that occasionally made the work's changes in rhythm sound somewhat spasmodic.

But despite a few harried moments in the first movement of the Bartok piano concerto, Lan Shui did a fine job of keeping the orchestra together in a work where train wrecks are often the rule, rather than the exception.

The performance benefited enormously from the presence of soloist Yefim Bronfman. The pianist brought to his performance not only his usual impregnable virtuosity, but also a warm sense of humor that made this work sound high-spirited instead of -- as it often does in other hands -- merely brutal and percussive.

Pub Date: 10/19/98

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