CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Shostakovich composed 15 symphonies in his long career. Some, like numbers 5, 8, 9 and 10, are startlingly good. His first symphony, finished when he was 19, might be a student work, but is in some ways the equal of any of them (I'm talking about you, No. 5).
The West Virginia Symphony opened its new season with a bracing performance Friday night at the Clay Center. Conductor Grant Cooper has been a sympathetic interpreter of Shostakovich and his take on the First had insight, depth and panache.
Some have argued that the episodic nature of the piece is a drawback to its quality, but in Cooper's approach, the sense of continuity was compelling. Notably, the last movement, which can sprawl, seemed taut and logical while balancing fire and pathos.
The piece also had many passages for the orchestra's solo winds, brass, percussion and principal strings. Violinist Amelia Chan and cellist Andrea Di Gregorio had lovely solos in the slow third movement, along with oboist Lorraine Dorsey and hornist Marsha Palmer. Clarinetist Robert Turizziani, pianist Vicki Berneking-Cavendish and bassoonist Klif Hodgkin showed fleet technique in the scherzo and fast movements. Timpanist Scott Christian had a climactic solo with penetrating tone, both soft and loud, in the finale.
In 2008, I thought pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi's performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 was one of the best performances I had heard in Charleston in my 18-year tenure as music critic. He made another brilliant case for his artistry Friday night when joining the orchestra in Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16. The piece is a warhorse, but Pompa-Baldi did not bluster about in it. Rather, he brought steel tone crusted in elegance to the powerful passages in the outer movements while drenching the lyrical figuration in translucent warmth. The cadenza at the end of the opening movement had breadth, drama and poetry. The slow movement was golden-toned. His rhythm is always impeccable in its refinement.
Cooper's accompaniment was sympathetic and aptly balanced. The finale was loose, formally, but in a performance so sincere, it's hard to fuss about it.
The audience brought Pompa-Baldi back for an extended ovation.
Britten's quirky "Suite on English Folk Tunes," Op. 90 opened the concert. Talk about variety: timpani opposite unison strings to start, Melody Rapier in an extended harp solo in the second movement, an acerbically dissonant piece for winds and snare drum, a fiddle tune for just violins (divided in many more than two parts) and a moving finale with Alex Winter's soulful English horn and the strings featured.
The Clay Center concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday.