Skilled, but not so nuanced

January 23, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Jonathan Biss, a pianist barely into his 20s, has a great deal going for him - impeccable teachers (including Leon Fleisher), solid technique, lots of important engagements. One of those engagements brought him to the area over the weekend for the 16th Yale Gordon Young Artist Concert of the Shriver Hall series, which revealed some of what Biss doesn't yet have.

Time and again on Sunday, he came up short in the elusive area known as nuance. Many a talented young musician can nail the notes with aplomb and win over an audience, as Biss did here. But when it comes to subtlety of expression, all the little nuances that can make even overly familiar phrases fresh and enlightening, it's harder to encounter satisfaction today.

Make no mistake - Biss can play. His appearance last season with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a Mozart concerto demonstrated that clearly. But that former appearance also revealed a limited range of tone color, one of the key factors in nuance.

For all of the impressive digital power on Sunday, that restricted tonal palette kept interfering. Often, it was a case of being too loud for too long a period, especially in the right hand. Even when the melody line switched to the left hand, as in part of the middle movement of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, Biss usually kept attacking too hard with the other.

It's possible to bring a lot more variety of expression to that sonata, even during its most relentless stretches, just as there is more in the way of poetic impulses to be unleashed in Chopin's music than Biss found in the Barcarolle and the three Mazurkas of Op. 59. That's where tone and subtle tempo fluctuation, another aspect of nuance, come into play.

Janacek's In the Mists wasn't always misty enough, but Biss captured its mood swings tellingly. He was also mostly persuasive in Debussy's Estampes, producing abundant vitality and vibrancy.

Chorus performs with style

The prospect of dissolution at season's end must be taking an emotional toll on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus, but not, as far as I can tell, on its singing. The ensemble, which was in strong form Thursday in the finale of Scriabin's Symphony No. 1 with the BSO, offered another admirable effort Saturday morning for the orchestra's "Casual Concert."

As a prelude to a repeat of the Scriabin score, the chorus had the spotlight for excerpts from Rachmaninoff's a cappella All-Night Vigil, a work of luminous beauty. Under Frank Nemhauser's sensitive direction, the group tapped much of that beauty.

Even without the superhuman bass tones of Russian choirs, there was considerable fullness and warmth to the sound. Most of the lush chords were deftly balanced, dynamic contrasts effectively articulated. It was a committed, stylish performance.

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