Virtuosic verve with Princeton Symphony

Posted: April 29, 2008

PRINCETON — Sensible concertgoers don't expect more than a reasonably pleasant afternoon from a part-time orchestra that's between music directors, such as the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. If nothing else, there was the provocative guest pianist David Greilsammer, a young Israeli artist with a major European career - but Sunday's concert delivered far more than that, thanks partly to Philadelphia Orchestra associate conductor Rossen Milanov.

Greilsammer first. His vehicle was Mozart's seldom-performed Piano Concerto No. 5 (K. 175) - the 16-year-old composer's first without outside supervision. The fact that Greilsammer made such a strong impression is only one sign of his originality.

He's one of several pianists making his name not on hot fingers but a virtuosic mind (others are Alexandre Tharaud and David Fray, who plays with Orchestre National de France tonight at the Kimmel Center). Greilsammer's first recital CD, titled Fantasie Fantasme (Naive), sequences a series of short movements, starting with Bach, moving on to Cage, Janacek, Mozart and others, then doubling back to Bach through the same composers with different movements from the same larger pieces. Greilsammer gives each composer a strong sound world that somehow leads with intuitive logic to the next. It's a startling, singularly imaginative piano disc, right down to its bizarre cover art.

However, Greilsammer has also made his name on Mozart (he'll perform all the composer's piano sonatas in a single day this spring). This concerto came off with a depth suggesting Greilsammer peered speculatively but convincingly into what larger things the composer was trying to say with his then-limited vocabulary. The pianissimos were incomparable, maintaining poetic intensity even when nearly inaudible.

Milanov wasn't outclassed. He set up the audience to hear unfamiliar Mozart with ballet music from the opera Idomeneo, and then played Pushkin Waltzes (Op. 120) - vintage late Prokofiev, whose sense of narrative in dance isn't dissimilar to Mozart's. Milanov's chemistry with the orchestra - equal, at least, to his rapport with his Camden orchestra, Symphony in C - was revealed in a Beethoven Symphony No. 5 performance that threatened to burn down Richardson Auditorium.

The interpretation was conceptually similar to Christoph Eschenbach's in past Philadelphia Orchestra seasons. The two discrete sections of the exclamatory opening motif came out in a single, smartly appended phrase. Milanov took that idea further, appending all kinds of things that gave the music a headlong momentum while keeping classical-era precision that reminded you where the music came from.

This was the work of a major conductor. Though the orchestra's need for a music director is heard in the dullness of its sound, this group's trump card is taking big chances without losing composure.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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