ST. PETERSBURG — There's something almost comical about how hard it is to play Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 2. Perhaps that's why pianist Stephen Hough performed it while wearing emerald-green shoes, a flamboyant, madcap touch of showmanship that seemed exactly right as he plunged into the work. He was stoutly supported in his daunting task by music director Stefan Sanderling and the Florida Orchestra Saturday night at Mahaffey Theater.
Although Hough is one of the greatest pianists in the world, the Tchaikovsky Second Piano Concerto would test even the most virtuosic of virtuosos. Yet the ease with which he navigated its jaw-droppingly rapid runs was nothing short of amazing, as in the two huge cadenzas of the first movement. Part of the listening enjoyment came in the unfamiliarity of the music, compared to the First Piano Concerto, the most popular Tchaikovsky concerto of all. No 2. is mainly known for its excessive length (about 45 minutes) and its use by choreographer George Balanchine as the score for his Ballet Imperial.
Oddly, from a structural standpoint, the second movement is like a triple concerto. Hough rested for long stretches as concertmaster Jeffrey Multer and principal cello James Connors played solos, then all three joined together in the wistful, lovely melody, classic Tchaikovsky. The delightful finale was full of dance themes, reminiscent of the Nutcracker and Swan Lake, and the orchestra's playing fully matched the brilliance of Hough.
Shostakovich's Festive Overture got Saturday's program off to a lively start under guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen, the 2007 Taki Concordia Conducting Fellow, an award established by Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, to support promising women conductors. Chen, born in Taiwan, is assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and she spent several days here studying with Sanderling during orchestra rehearsals.
Chen has an alert manner on the podium and is economical in her gestures, but she's also plenty passionate when the music takes flight. The orchestra really played well for her in Shostakovich's bright, brassy bauble of a showpiece. She is an exciting young talent to keep an eye on.
Sanderling had his shining hour in the Firebird Suite (1945 version), shaping a dreamy performance that brought out the surprising details of Stravinsky's orchestration, such as the weird string glissandos that introduce the evil King Kaschei's magic garden at night.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.