CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Symphony has been forced to make the best of a bad situation, and we are not talking about either the weather or the water for a change.The last-minute cancellation due to illness of Ukraine-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa left no time for the engagement of another soloist for Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor for this weekend's concerts at the Clay Center.Conductor Grant Cooper substituted the composer's Symphony No. 2 in D Major for the concerto, pairing it with the other work scheduled, Sibelius' Symphony No. 1 in E Minor.The orchestra sounded robust and polished in the Brahms, as one would expect from a piece that is still near the top of the list of standard orchestra repertoire.
The opening movement was gracefully phrased and benefited from neat playing by the cellos and violas in the sweet melody of the second theme. The slow movement was richly detailed and lustrous in tone, with subtle playing by the strings, horns and woodwinds.Cooper made the third movement's switches between graceful, lilting music and vigorous, driving ideas twinkle.Perhaps the finale could have started with more clarity of texture, but Cooper's interpretation gained from incisive rhythms and a growing sense of energy and proportion. The big trombone and tuba passages that drive the coda were played with authority.The Sibelius was even better.The great Finnish composer's symphonies have a way of sounding perfect for a winter concert (and who knows winter quite like a Finn, although we've all been getting some experience lately).The First Symphony is not as popular as the Second or Fifth, perhaps unjustly, but it is a tautly constructed piece that is full of fine melodies and brilliant orchestral writing.The local orchestra played it with impressive attention to detail. From principal clarinetist Robert Turizziani's nearly whispered solo at the beginning over a single timpani roll, the opening movement was full of finely shaded detail and powerful contrasts. A rumbling, climbing accompaniment in imitation between cellos and basses was particularly effective.The slow movement glowed in the languid melody for cellos and violins, especially when it returned braced by pulsing filigrees of melody in the woodwinds at the climax.The scherzo had a flinty edge to its driving rhythms that flew among timpani, trumpets, trombones and winds.Cooper conducted the finale's big fantasia appropriately, driving the fast tempos just short enough of frenzy to make the increasingly busy rhythms stand out clearly. The contrasting slower music, which finally wins out at the end, flowed with conviction, warmly shaded but with just a touch of frost.For those disappointed at not hearing or having a chance to hear Lisitsa -- she enjoys significant popularity in Charleston -- Cooper announced that she has agreed to play both of Brahms' piano concertos with the orchestra in November.
The concert repeats tonight at 8 p.m. at the Clay Center.