Formally a pops concert but filled with classical favorites, the program opened with Shostakovich's rousing Festive Overture. Perhaps owing to nerves or excitement, the variation in tempos and timbres lead to a kind of rag-tag messiness, with horns somewhat obscuring the strings' watery lines. Conductor Robert Moody skillfully smoothed things out with a mix of commanding presence and relaxed gestures, placing skillful emphasis on the wonderful ostinato line in the strings midway through, and the dramatic, pulsating tension of the percussion section that lead to a rousing ending.

Robert Moody © Arielle Doneson
Robert Moody
© Arielle Doneson

The concert’s momentum continued with Grieg's dramatic Piano Concerto in A minor, which brought 20-year old soloist Conrad Tao to the stage, making his TSO debut. As subtle as a bull in a china shop, the young pianist delivered a loud, virtuosic performance, that frequently sacrificed precision for passion. Tao clearly loves the material – Saturday evening's concert saw him tapping his foot, conducting when he wasn't playing, and bobbing his head, heavy-metal-style. For all the fireworks, much of Tao's interpretation lacked delicacy and the sort of considered approach that would elevate the material beyond the merely showy. To imply Grieg's energetic work has no poetry is to miss the point; the poetry is such that it has to be coaxed, gently, like the more subtle shading notes on a busy, paint-strewn canvas; there is art in it, and delicacy, if one knows where and how to look. He has a raft of awards and honors under his relatively-young belt (conductor Moody last worked withthe 20-year-old Tao when the soloist / recording artist / composer was just 14), but his TSO debut smacked of bravura, and his interpretation in the second movement felt forced and impatient, as if he was gritting his teeth in an endurance test, missing the slow grace and lyricism sitting at the heart of Grieg’s popular work.

Compounding this zeal was a disappointing lack of grace in taking bows at the piece's end. Rather than wait and recognize the orchestra, Tao immediately took to the bench for an encore, acknowledging that "I know you usually wait longer, but I can't wait!" The encore was a fast, showy take on the third movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no. 7, Op.83, and though it was a thrilling performance, it left little to no room for the imagination, placing whatever resonance remaining of the TSO's beautiful playing through the Grieg work a foggy memory. That is deeply unfortunate, for the orchestra played with a gorgeous subtlety and dynamism underscored by Moody's knowing baton; the TSO provided an interesting sonic counterpoint to Tao's antics while providing a steady undercurrent of wisdom and experience that beautifully captured the essential beauty of the piece.

The TSO offered a gorgeous, sultry rendition of Marquez's Danzon no. 2 in the concert’s second half. A cinematic work with Cuban flavors, the piece courted widespread favor when it was performed by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (conducted by Gustavo Dudamel) on tour in 2007. Impressive work from the TSO's percussion department, together with the work of the woodwinds, gave the piece a sunny magic that integrated rhythm and melody in both rhythmic and melodious ways.

Selections from Holst's The Planets ("Mars", "Uranus" and "Jupiter") were performed with great magic and style. "Mars" was presented in all its bold, angry splendor, with lovely work from the brass section and a theme greatly anticipating the film scores of John Williams and Howard Shore (best-known for his award-winning work on the Lord of the Rings movies). “Uranus” featured strong, bold playing by the TSO horn section to open, giving way to a woodwind line recalling Peer Gynt. Moody had a nicely integrated sense of interplay between sections here, with the theme presented as both menacing and playful, and some stellar work from the percussion. "Jupiter" had all of its expected grandiosity, with the woodwind and percussion sections turning in especially impressive performances.

Perhaps most gratifying to the performance of Holst’s much-loved piece was the experience of hearing a grand, majestic unification, with the TSO, under Moody’s passionate, knowing baton, both understanding and appreciating that subtlety can, even in the most grandly gestured of pieces, make the biggest and most long-lasting impression.