Eugene Symphony, Danail Rachev, Andre Watts

It was a wondrous, smooth, delicious and dreamy Mahler 4 that Eugene Symphony turned out tonight, under the baton of Danail Rachev and featuring soprano soloist Alexandra Schoeny. The music was full, rich, satisfying, and kept my mind racing for the entire hour’s performance.

But first, the celebrity of the evening performed. Piano superstar André Watts played Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto, aka The Emperor, and the crowd absolutely loved it. Watts, who will turn 70 this June, was a child prodigy who first performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age nine. When he was 16, he won a piano competition that allowed him to perform with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Phil. A couple weeks later, Glenn Gould called in sick for a performance, and Bernstein called Watts back for a second appearance. He’s won a Grammy, and he’s in the Classical Music Hall of Fame.

His performance tonight was fine. I can’t say he missed a note, though of course he might have, as there were many, many notes. His playing was pretty much perfect and expressive. But overall, nothing really made my heart pound. This may have been due to the difficult acoustics in the Hult Center’s Silva Hall; the sound of soloists — even pianists — can be lost in the sound of the orchestra, and I had the feeling that Rachev may have dialed it down a bit so Watts wouldn’t be run over by the other musicians. I found myself, well, not napping, but nodding a bit during the beautiful, slow second movement.

My suspicions were deepened when, after intermission, the Mahler fourth symphony began. Now we were cooking. The same orchestra and conductor that had been bland as tapioca  before the break now, without a solo performer, sizzled like habaneros with intricate passion and intellectual delight. The music moved like lithe dancers through and around the big orchestra, and every time you thought you had it nailed down, Mahler seemed to make a quick and unexpected left turn., just to keep you on your toes.

Schoeny’s performance in the fourth movement of the Mahler, a bit like Watts’ piano, was a little soft from where I sat in row S. She has a lovely, expressive voice, but it’s not quite big enough to fill that cavernous hall against a Mahler-sized orchestra. That said, the final movement of the symphony is serene, and trails off at the end so subtly that that when the music was over, and Rachev stood still on the podium for a long moment, and then another one, time seemed completely to come to a stop.

Acoustic quirks aside, a wonderful performance as part of the symphony’s 50th anniversary season. I’m looking forward to the April concert, for which former music director Marin Alsop, herself now a superstar, returns to guest conduct.