Symphony Pro Musica opens with highly energetic program
by John Zeugner, Worcester Telegram & Gazette
November 18, 2006

Westboro – Opening its 24th season yesterday at Mill Pond School, Symphony Pro Musica fortified its reputation for exciting, eclectic programming and for introducing extraordinary young talents to Central Massachusetts.

Conductor Mark Churchill opened the program with Worcester native John Adams’ engaging and rambunctious short piece, “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.”  Then followed a stalwart warhorse, Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, with 11-year-ole George Li at the keyboard.  After the intermission Churchill concluded with Sergey Prokofiev’s highly cinematic Fifth Symphony.

John Adams is perhaps America’s most famous current contemporary composer.  He wrote “Short Ride” for the opening of the Pittsburgh Symphony’s summer at Great Woods in 1986, and the piece immediately caught on.  Its pulsating, constant rhythmic explosiveness takes hold of the audience and simply won’t let go.

If Beethoven seemed quaint after Adams, that characterization evaporated as Li took his position at the piano.  It seemed his hands were too small for Beethovenian runs, yet Li detonated such thoughts the minute he entered after the seven-minute orchestral introduction.

There was mind-boggling fluency in Li’s fingerings, an effortlessness to his playing, a beguiling fluidity to his phrasing, a precision to his crisp attacks.  It seemed the audience experienced the incredible impact the young Mozart must have had on audiences in France and Italy when he toured at the same age as Li.

The orchestra could barely keep pace with his professionalism; in the second movement the bassoon and French horn work wilted trying to complement Li’s silken tones.  In the third movement Li set the rollicking pace, but this time the flute work perfectly dialogued and echoed Li’s masterful crossover fingerings.  The audience exploded into a standing ovation, and obligingly Li returned for a dazzling encore of a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody.  If the Adams piece was riveting, young Li was almost satanically mesmerizing.

After the intermission Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony finished the program.  In another review of a performance of this symphony I had written that it was the kind of music “Rimsky-Korsakov might have written after too much valium and Red Bull.”  But I concede Churchill’s authoritative way with the score seemed to bring a small measure of coherence to the work.

In particular Churchill managed to bring out the cello and bass lines in several movements in a way that anchored some of the bombast.  He also got marvelous work out of his tympani and trumpet sections.  So that in the end it seemed the glitz and Hollywood excesses of the score had mellowed somehow.

Churchill, Adams and Li made Symphony Pro Musica’s opening memorable, indeed.