CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gerard Schwarz has long been established as one of the leading American conductors. The words "American conductor" have been problematic for American orchestras for more than 100 years. American orchestras seem always to turn to foreigners when looking to fill a major post.But he has had a fine career as a conductor, principally in Seattle and New York. His musical credentials, as anyone who knows his superb set of recordings of William Schuman's symphonies can attest, are top notch. His performance as guest conductor of the West Virginia Symphony in a concert of Russian music, held Friday night at the Clay Center, was no less spectacular.The opening composition, Rimsky-Korsakov's Overture to "The Tsar's Bride," was brilliantly shaped, with telling depths to its textures and rhythms that crackled with energy.Korsakov's famous "Scheherazade" was even better, sounding fresh and novel, particularly in the finale's constant shifting between simple and compound divisions of the beat.
The piece abounds with solos for the orchestra's players. The most substantial is for the solo violin, played enticingly by concertmaster Amelia Chan. But harpist Melody Rapier, hornist Marsha Palmer, clarinetist Robert Turizziani, flutist Lindsay Goodman, oboist Lorraine Dorsey, bassoonist Klif Hodgkin and cellist Andrea Di Gregorio all played with distinction.Schwarz found an apt balance between the brasses and the rest of the orchestra in the opening music about Sinbad and his ship. The woodwinds and percussion anchored the dazzling "Tale of the Kalendar Prince."The finale was fiery without sounding exhausting, and it was brilliantly played.Pianist Lola Astanova joined the orchestra for Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. She played with easy fluency, and her rhythm was neatly polished. I do mean this as pretty high praise; Rachmaninoff's music is really difficult and his rhythmic writing often sets the player's hands against each other, dividing the beat into two parts in the right hand and three parts in the left, all while arcing them over the piano with blinding speed.And she played with feeling, getting inside the melodies and exploring without being fussy about it.She projected well through the orchestra's sound. Schwarz shaped things so they were rich and colorful. She matched that and found enough power without sounding like she was pummeling the piano.That said, it seems she is still finding her way in the piece (and to be fair, she is young), shaping her own interpretation that, right now, doesn't quite sound like her own.She played an encore of Chopin's Etude, Op. 25, No. 5 with panache.The concert repeats Saturday at the Clay Center at 8 p.m.