If you want a workout like no other, follow pianist Jonathan Biss’s lead.
At Saturday’s Sioux City Symphony Orchestra concert, he nailed Ludwig van Beethoven’s vigorous “Concerto No. 1,” then followed it with an equally demanding “Piano Concerto No. 3” by Sally Beamish.
The two pieces were tied together through a project designed to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Commissioned by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, five new works key off corresponding Beethoven concertos.
Beamish’s “City Stanzas,” as it’s also known, is much darker than its inspiration, drawing on the turbulent year in which it was written, 2016.
Even though Biss had plenty to do in the new work, it wasn’t quite as mesmerizing as Beethoven’s. The newer piece, in fact, was so dark it was often difficult to warm to, even though Brian Allred provided impressive work on the piccolo.
Biss, so commanding during both performances, looked at times like he was also conducting. His left hand froze mid-air while his right rolled across the keyboard.
While music director Ryan Haskins was clearly in charge, the orchestra did rush during several parts of Beethoven’s allegro.
A composer could find plenty to play off from the concerto. A jazzy rondo may have been the key tie for Beamish, who attempted to duplicate the sounds of a city, notably those coming from clubs. Her notes were jarring during the “tour” of the city, but still just as challenging for the musicians.
Biss treated both pieces with gusto, leaning over the keyboard like he was in an intense relationship, wooing in one, arguing in the other.
Although the new work may not have been as accessible as the classic one, it helped show just how versatile Biss is.
As if to send the audience out on a wave of familiarity, the orchestra closed with Claude Debussy’s “La Mer.” More soothing, it showcased a fuller orchestra and gave audience members something specific to embrace.
Interestingly, it was considered one of those jarring works when it debuted. Overshadowed by Debussy’s personal life, the piece bubbled with complexity and imagery.
Saturday’s performance had the ebb and flow it needed to approximate the sea.
Haskins made sure it rolled effortlessly, giving the cellos a great moment in the first movement. Two harps helped leave the audience with sweet dreams.
The night, though, belonged to Biss, who showed just how physical – and challenging – music is. New or old.