The Colburn Orchestra's annual spring gala in Walt Disney Concert Hall is typically a multi-generational affair. Sunday night, James Conlon, 64, conducted. His soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17, however, was yet another generation older.
Menahem Pressler was born into a world that had not yet heard Schoenberg's 12-tone music or George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," two events that would change classical music forever. A founder of the Beaux Arts Trio in 1955, Pressler, who fled Nazi Germany for Israel as a teenager, turned 90 in December.
Sunday evening he walked onstage with a lively, sure step. Clearly ready for action, he sat with a kind of sly look on his face during the concerto's orchestral opening, vigorously conducted by Conlon. The soloist has a 16th note rest before his squiggling rising first passage. Pressler cunningly anticipated that by a nanosecond.
His tone was stunning, a beauteous bell-like sound, and he knew it. If Pressler waits on no one, he does wait on the dying resonance of the piano. He likes to let the sound fade to near inaudibility and then pick up with the next note to create a magical lyricism.
The slow movement was where the most wonders were, because Pressler had the most time to reveal them. With every bar, he seemed to be saying not only "Look what I am doing here," but also "Look what I can do here." At 90, a self-centered pianist is not an annoyance but a marvel, and so was his Mozart, laden with but not weighed down by experience.
Meanwhile the students at Colburn have their youth, their relative inexperience and their talent. Members of the orchestra come and go, so the ensemble doesn't grow. But something has been happening because the orchestra, which has been in existence for 11 years, wasn't once as impressive as it has become.
The big piece Sunday was Alexander Zemlinsky's 43-minute tone poem, "Die Seejungfrau" (The Mermaid), based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" and a Conlon specialty. It was written in 1901 and not a success. You can hear in it echoes of Richard Strauss tone poems, Mahler symphonies and Wagner operas, as well as forecasts of Ottorino Respighi's splashy orchestral pieces. But what it really sounds like is early Schoenberg, Zemlinsky having been Schoenberg's brother-in-law and composition teacher.
Zemlinsky — who, like Pressler, fled the Nazis — immigrated to New York and died in 1942, a neglected composer on the wrong side of history, hanging on to an earlier century's Romanticism. Psycho-biographers say "The Mermaid" is the bug-eyed Zemlinsky's response to losing the beautiful Alma Schindler to the far more glamorous Mahler. That is one explanation for Zemlinsky's sentimentalizing love-lorn transcendence.
"The Mermaid" is enjoyable, though, for Zemlinsky's spectacular orchestral colors and ability to create tactile musical effects of the watery depths. This is the thing for young, not-yet-cynical orchestral musicians, and Conlon produced flamboyant swaths of instrumental effects from the Colburners while keeping most of the pathos at bay.
The ardent theme for the Little Mermaid is the property of the solo violin, and concertmaster Evin Blomberg played it with fine spirit. The Prince's theme belongs to the cello, adroitly handled by principal cellist Natalie Helm. But it was when the big band (filled out with the occasional extra) hit the climaxes with everything it had that "The Mermaid" sounded like the composer might have been headed toward the 20th century after all.