"When you find conductors that care about the concerto, cherish them." So says pianist John O'Conor, who thinks maestros would rather put more energy into the symphony that's on the second half of most orchestral programs. For the Florida Orchestra's all-Beethoven concert at the Straz Center on Friday, Brazilian-born guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger clearly relished conducting Ludwig's third piano concerto.
Lehninger was especially attentive to Irish pianist O'Conor; every entrance was coordinated with care. The communication was especially clear in the first movement, with the themes passed back and forth between the piano and orchestra quite frequently. At one point, the cellists finished a phrase begun by O'Conor and it was just as if the piano's timbre had been altered with no change in performer.
The second movement to Beethoven's third piano concerto is truly sublime. If that was all the orchestra played, you would have gotten your money's worth. However, you wouldn't have experienced the radical shift in moods from the first movement, which is part of the concerto's magic. All the power of the first movement melts away, and we are forced to pay attention to every delicate motion. For about 11 minutes, O'Conor brought the audience into his world — and the world of Beethoven — by playing the most beautiful music of the night.
The lively rondo that follows, ripe with trills and scales, is refreshing in a way after the sensual second movement. O'Conor did it justice with just the right amount of liberty taken in key moments. Then the audience heard his most enthusiastic playing of the night during the last 15 seconds of the concerto, when he finished the final descending passage with a fierce intensity.
Perhaps none of Beethoven's other works reminds us of his great appreciation of nature more than his sixth symphony, Pastoral, which concluded the program. Beethoven was a man forced into seclusion because of his deafness, which made him love the solace he found in nature all that much more. Each of the five movements was given a title that describes its character, all revolving around an idyllic scene in the countryside.
While the first two works on the program were in a minor key (Overture to Goethe's Egmont in F minor and Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor), the Pastoral symphony certainly made up the difference in mood. No doubt it had at least a few members of the audience imagining the centaurs, cupids and fauns from when the work was featured in Disney's 1940 animated film Fantasia.