The review below appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of May 5, 2002.
Friday night's New Mexico Symphony Orchestra concert in Popejoy Hall was brimming over with musicality, supplied by both NMSO players and the extraordinary young American pianist, Jonathan Biss.
The rather curious program interspersed two lesser Beethoven works with seminal efforts from two Frenchmen, Debussy and Milhaud, that signaled certain directions 20th century music would take. It could have been a disjointed hotchpotch of an evening, but it became instead a stream of pleasures.
Flutist Valerie Potter set the tone with her melting solos in the opener, Debussy's ``Afternoon of a Faun.'' The veiled palette of this 1894 work, with its floating atmosphere and its use of color to shape form, set off a train of explorations that continue to this day. Conductor Guillermo Figueroa's reading had a lovely spaciousness, though it failed to convey the sensuous charge of the music's delicate climax.
Pianist Jonathan Biss then took Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto, an early work of more promise than fulfillment, and made it bliss. Already well on his way, this young man should have a major career: Only a couple of years younger than the 25-year-old Beethoven of this work, Biss captured fully the concerto's youthful brilliance and buoyancy in an exquisitely controlled performance. From the first notes, the precision and grace of his playing brought to mind the legendary Rudolf Serkin, one of the great 20th century pianists.
And like Serkin, Biss's whole body seemed to get caught up in the music. When he was not producing sound waves himself, he was responding to them, bending and flowing with the orchestra's playing. In his hands, the piano became the most supple of instruments. It yielded to his touch with warm and loving tones, particularly in the second movement, whose relatively uninspired phrases turned into flowing song. Throughout the concerto Biss had an infectious lightness of spirit, dancing up and down the keyboard with rippling scales and arpeggios in the first movement, turning the final rondo into a bubbling romp.
After intermission a small ensemble of instruments, including piano and a drum set, leapt over more than a century and the Romantic period to Milhaud's ``The Creation of the World'' of 1923.
An early classical exploration of the language of jazz, it opens with a languid saxophone solo that Carrie Kaufman brought to vivid life. All the players had fun grooving with the work's jazzy fugue and bluesy musings while Figueroa held it together in a clear, if somewhat detached, stance.
The evening closed with Beethoven's ``Choral Fantasy,'' a patchwork quilt of music, half or more of piano fantasy topped off with a large dollop of choral ode, mostly interesting for its insights into the workings of the composer's mind. Somehow Biss managed to infuse the piano part with a sense of both logic and spontaneity and the NMSO chorus, ably prepared by their director Roger Melone, projected their rather curious role with a lusty exuberance.