A week ago, pianist Kenny Broberg’s phone rang in Kansas City, Mo. It was the Minnesota Orchestra, asking could he possibly stand in for a flu-stricken André Watts at the coming weekend’s subscription concerts.
Five days later, Broberg walked on stage at Orchestra Hall to play Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, one of the grandest in the repertoire. A canceled flight from Kansas City meant that only one rehearsal with the orchestra had been possible.
At least the surroundings were familiar. Eight years ago Broberg, then a student at Washburn High School, made his Minnesota Orchestra debut at a Young People’s Concert.
Since then the young Minnesota artist’s progress has been exponential. Last year he won a silver medal at the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Texas, one of the most prestigious in the business.
Friday evening’s performance of the “Emperor,” Broberg’s concerto debut at Orchestra Hall, showed exactly why the Cliburn judges rated him so highly.
One obvious feature of his playing was the bright, pearly tone quality. It animated the glimmering cascades of notes in the piano’s flamboyant opening gestures and put a bright smile on the many episodes of silvery trilling that Beethoven asks for in the concerto.
The slow movement had a clean, pellucid beauty, without a trace of sentimentality or false straining for profundity.
Was the first appearance of the finale’s main theme a little impetuously pummeled? Perhaps, but Broberg’s playing of the movement had a pleasing rustic swagger and was refreshingly free of pomposity.
Age 23 is young for a pianist, and Broberg will know that in many ways his journey as a professional soloist is only just beginning.
But this was nonetheless a highly auspicious debut, marked by poise, technical brilliance and a welcome lack of the narcissistic body language so many pianists see fit to indulge in.
Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony was the other work on the program, and its oppressive sense of lurking menace contrasted sharply with the bushy-tailed optimism of Broberg’s “Emperor.”
The long, lingering opening movement was patiently shaped by the Finnish conductor John Storgårds, whose intense concentration served to knit the sometimes wildly disparate mood-shifts of the music together.
The choked coda of the movement was particularly impressive in Storgårds’ interpretation, a fade to black with lingering strands of pain and isolation hanging in the ether.
The second movement’s mad galop was taken at a scalding pace, with rasping playing from the orchestra, and rat-a-tat snare-shots piercing menacingly through the boiling instrumental textures.
Storgårds plotted a canny path through the shifting perspectives of the third movement Allegretto, ensuring that the repeated horn calls (finely played by Michael Gast) had room to pose their enigmatic questions.
Best of all was Storgårds’ handling of the finale, whose sudden lurch to devil-may-care high spiritedness rarely seems convincing.
Storgårds saw it for what it is - the smirk of an unhappy jester forced to mimic merriment. His reading of the final minutes had an edge of frantic instability to it, punched home by a vividly on-form Minnesota Orchestra.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.