Both conductor Alondra de la Parra and soloist Jan Lisiecki are well known on the world’s finest concert stages, and both began their careers at an early age. At 23, she launched the New York-based Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, today an international symphony orchestra that showcases young composers and performers of the Latin American region. This Zurich concert featured Lisiecki, the young Canadian The New York Times has cited as “a pianist who gives expression to every single note”.

Alondra de la Parra © Cicero Rodrigues
Alondra de la Parra
© Cicero Rodrigues

Rather than to Latin America, however, de la Parra addressed a few of the greats of Western music, starting her programme with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite. Although composed a decade later than The Firebird and The Rite of Spring ballets, Pulcinella conformed to a more popular musical convention, and is considered by musicologists today as a marker for the start of Stravinsky's neoclassical period. He himself wrote that "Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible."

Any great lover of woodwinds gets their just due in the suite; here among the soli in Zurich, the Tonhalle’s first oboe, Simon Fuchs, gave a haunting melodic tone that both launched the evening and returned again and again like a lullaby. Concertmaster Julia Becker often picked up his lyrical line, leaning back in her chair when she bowed for emphasis, as if to give her instrument even more breathing room. A brilliant flute also figured prominently in the dialogue, and towards the end of the piece, the trombone previews an almost comical blast of horns, turning the concert hall into a busy, traffic-clogged 1920s New York City street. While based on the story of a traditional hero in the Neapolitan commedia dell’arte tradition, this Pulcinella gave us a sense of modern urban gusto at its best.

While Lisiecki has often said he doesn’t like the word “prodigy”, it’s hard to deny that precious few soloists ever debut at Carnegie Hall as early in their careers as he did, aged 14. Here in Zurich, aged 21, Lisiecki is precisely the same age Mozart was when he composed his Piano Concerto no. 9 in E flat major “Jeunehomme" we were to hear, making an unparalleled case for the brilliance of youth.

In the Allegro, Lisiecki made a lanky figure at the keys. Long-legged and sharply upright, he often bent just an ear towards the keyboard to better gauge his sound. His piano gave us a sterling tone from the start, and confirmed others’ assessments that even inside a single phrase, he could turn out a myriad of colours. Sadly, Mozart’s Andantino had a clumsy beginning; in several instances, Lisiecki sprang just a modicum ahead of the orchestra, and attacks were not neatly calibrated. Feet firmly planted two feet apart on the podium, de la Parra conducted with modest, but controlled gestures, using nuances of her slim fingers to give most of her cues. That she made little eye contact with the soloist throughout, however, may well have caused the sporadic unevenness.

In the last movement, one lullaby-like passage dovetailed beautifully with the orchestra, and Lisiecki offered brilliant ornamentation, the notes somehow seeming to own him. A single gesture a split second after his final, powerful chord was memorable: he brought his hands down again to strike an imaginary keyboard mid-air as if to say “there!” and to bundle and seal all the dynamic the piece had inspired.

After the interval, an expanded orchestra played Beethoven’s Third Symphony − the “Eroica” − that premiered in Vienna in 1805. Composed only twenty-eight years after the Mozart we had just heard, the work showed Beethoven forging into unchartered territory. Its first movement was marked by dynamic contrasts, and a stellar presence of a silvery flute and robust French horn. The funeral march of the slow second movement had gripping moments, and the cellos excelled, but the lugubrious tempo and lack of tension saw its impact fall by the wayside. By contrast, the conductor pulled up far more muscle in the third movement, using a series of digging motions to prompt greater vigour. The final movement again gave the woodwinds a chance to truly shine, and the ending was monumental, even if the performance overall fell short of bringing down the house.