ROBERT BRUCE SMITH: Pianist concludes symphony’s 40th season

By Robert Bruce Smith/Special to the Journal

TUPELO – What extra spark of refined artistic brilliance does it take to snag one of this world’s most glittering and coveted musical prizes? When some of Planet Earth’s most phenomenally gifted young classical pianists assemble for a top-notch competition like the Cleveland, Van Cliburn, Tchaikovsky, or Busoni, what subtly compelling magic do the judges uniquely hear in the finalist who gets the gold?
Saturday night at the Link Centre Concert Hall, it was possible to find out for yourself.
In a memorable performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Steven Byess and the Tupelo Symphony, pianist Alexander Schimpf rekindled the kind of shimmering musical radiance and elation that obviously won him first prize in the famous Cleveland International Piano Competition less than nine months ago.
About 237 years earlier, during a hectic week in late March, 1795, another young man was grappling with the same piece of music. It was 25-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven, and he was rushing to complete the all-important concerto that he hoped would launch his own budding career skyward towards fame and fortune in hyper-musical Vienna. A few days later, at Beethoven’s first performance before the Viennese public, it spectacularly did.
And here lies Concerto No. 2’s dual charm. It’s both the ambitiously crafted tool of an impatient piano virtuoso and musical genius eager to find his place in the sun, and it’s also a scintillating work of art, intermingling witty Mozartean grace with Beethoven’s own revolutionary new ideas about harmony and rhythm.
These wonderful qualities of Concerto No. 2 came to life again under the serene gaze, thoughtful mind – and flying fingers – of Saturday’s soloist, Alexander Schimpf. As another reviewer wrote of him, he didn’t play the music – he owned it. Alternately propulsive and melodic in the first movement, Schimpf handled its concluding solo cadenza with dazzling but understated virtuosity. Wading gently into the dreamy, lyrical second movement, he zestfully sprinted through the rhythmically impetuous finale with all his finely articulated kinetic might.
Besides winning Cleveland’s 2011 International Piano Competition (with its $50,000 prize, Carnegie Hall debut, etc.), 30-year-old Schimpf has also walked away with top prizes from other significant competitions as well. He was even voted favorite performer by the Cleveland Competition audience!
Clearly, Schimpf’s calm demeanor, thoughtful approach to music, and infectiously lively playing add up to an extra-special “something” that both judges and audience members can somehow sense. What this special “something” may be is fascinating to think about, but ultimately its existence in our world can only be chalked up to the eternal mystery of great art itself.
Dedicated to the memory of local attorney and TSO founder Wade H. Lagrone, Saturday’s performance concluded the orchestra’s festive celebration of its 40th concert season here in Tupelo. Recognized during a short talk after intermission, Lagrone’s wife and two of his children received a congratulatory ovation for the visionary role he played during the organization’s formative years.
As Saturday also marked the TSO’s 2011-12 season farewell, the evening’s other selections reflected TSO music director Steven Byess’ apparent delight in going out with an artistically satisfying bang. To open the program, he flooded Link Centre Hall with a thrilling tsunami of brass in Paul Dukas’ “Fanfare” from the ballet La Peri. More fanfares and jubilant music rang out in Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture,” which came later.
And to wind things up, Byess chose well indeed: Ottorino Respighi’s four-movement orchestral showpiece, “The Pines of Rome.” Interspersed with vivid musical impressions, nightingale trills, and mystic visions of the Eternal City, Byess finally gave his TSO musicians full tilt to recreate the over-the-top sonic crescendo that famously closes this work. Few concerts – and seasons – can end more spectacularly than this!