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Music review: Maximiano Valdés conducts the Pasadena Symphony with pianist Chu-Fang Huang

May 8, 2011 |  4:06 pm

For the penultimate concert of the Pasadena Symphony’s inaugural season at the Ambassador Auditorium on Saturday afternoon (the concert repeated that evening), guest conductor Maximiano Valdés offered first-rate accounts of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Chinese pianist Chu-Fang Huang, and Rachmaninoff’s expansive Symphony No. 2.

The Chilean-born Valdés, who was music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic for 10 years, proved a tasteful and artfully restrained maestro in music that can easily become bombastic and cloying. In the wrong hands, Rachmaninoff’s symphony can feel overlong. But Valdés was in command of the score’s rhapsodic ardor and shifting tensions, giving it an organic and inevitable flow. The Pasadena Symphony strings might have produced a richer sound to fully convey the score’s Russian fervor, but they generated plenty of emotive power, especially in the Adagio.

The concert began with Liszt’s concerto. Huang, though dressed in a fiery red gown, gave a refreshingly subtle performance. After winning prizes at piano competitions, she was developing a reputation for the kind of overly assertive playing that impresses juries. But as a teenager at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, her teacher was Claude Frank, renowned for his lyrical Beethoven and Schubert interpretations. Frank hated Liszt and Rachmaninoff for their showiness and vulgarity. Huang told me during intermission that when she wanted to play those composers’ music, Frank “would send me to Gary Graffman," a pianist, teacher and Rachmaninoff' champion.

Yet Huang clearly took some of Frank’s lessons to heart in her poetic reading of Liszt’s second concerto, which is less driven by virtuosity than his first. With sensitive support from Valdés, she found a satisfying balance between the work's expressive cantabile passages and more brilliant technical demands.

-- Rick Schultz