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Tianyi Lu Leads Pacific Symphony in a Singing Account of Sibelius

Updated: May 17

REVIEW: The young conductor from New Zealand makes a big impression in the composer’s Second Symphony, and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.

Tianyi Lu takes the Pacific Symphony podium this weekend as the last guest conductor of the season. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

It’s been a season of speed dating for the Pacific Symphony. Eight guest conductors have shown up, many of them first timers with the group, all – or most, we’re not told explicitly – vying for the job as the next music director. The orchestra may be in danger of the consumer in the cereal aisle: Too many choices, all of them delicious. There will be several more candidates next season.

The latest aspirant, Tianyi Lu, arrived Thursday in Segerstrom Concert Hall. The Chinese-born New Zealander, in her mid 30s, is the youngest of the would-be's so far, and the least experienced, though still impressively qualified. Among her bona fides are wins at two prestigious conducting competitions (those named for Georg Solti and Guido Cantelli); she currently holds positions in Norway and Wales, where she is Female-Conductor-in-Residence with the Welsh National Opera. 

She’s also a former Dudamel Fellow at the LA Phil, has conducted that orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl, and has already appeared with many other major ensembles.

She was wonderful to watch on Thursday. Slight in stature, Lu is nonetheless a compelling figure on the podium. She possesses an agile, fluid and athletic technique. Her arms, long and limber, seem to be the key. They appear to be made of some material other than bone and flesh – rubber, perhaps, or newly sprung branches on a tree. She moves vigorously, but those movements are always clearly focused on musical expression, not showmanship.

Her main order of business last night was the Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius. She led it wholeheartedly. She made it her own. Not for her that vast, bleak, frozen landscape of Sibelius’s Finland. She wanted everything to sing, legato lines and warm tones. Her phrases were beautifully connected and liquid. In the bass end of the tonal spectrum, instrumental colors glowed with richness. The strings sounded terrific.

Tianyi Lu leads the Pacific Symphony with agile, fluid and athletic technique.

Photos courtesy of Pacific Symphony / Doug Gifford


At the same time, her quick technique allowed her to turn on a dime and explore Sibelius’s many exuberances and ruminations. She followed them more than she pushed for them. This made her interpretation of the work cohesive, continuously expressive, deeply felt. The first movement, especially, seemed in a single breath.

Perhaps because of this relentlessness, I felt the slightest letdown with the famous big ending, with its churning ostinatos and granitic brass acclimations. There had been so many highs before then that it didn’t stand out quite as much as it can. A quibble with a remarkable performance.

Yulianna Avdeeva performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Pacific Symphony. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony / Doug Gifford

Russian pianist Yulianna Avdeeva, winner of the 2010 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, was the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 before intermission. This seemed a case of a gifted musician matched with the wrong piece. Avdeeva is a genuine virtuoso and a sensitive interpreter, and she showed both in abundance here. But the thing never really caught fire and only sporadically sounded Beethovenish. Her way of playing is about controlling every aspect of the keyboard, deeply pressing keys, inducing gorgeous voicings, ironing out difficulties until they don’t sound difficult. 

Did I want her to play less well? No, but I did want her to let go and allow the music to fly, to let it growl and breathe and bloom, to go beyond the keyboard into something more wild and possessed. 

Meanwhile, Lu accompanied her with all that exuberance we heard more of in the Sibelius, the orchestra and her really going at it, without raucousness (or blanketing Avdeeva).

Avdeeva’s encore was a little march, Schubert’s “Moments Musicaux” No. 3, played with loving delicacy, as if a sweet memory recalled at a great distance.

Lu gave the obligatory chat before the Beethoven. It was friendly, casual, not especially helpful with the music at hand. Conductors’ chats are designed (if that’s not too strong a word) that way these days; they’re meant to show that the conductor is just a regular person, like us. The problem is they’re not regular people like us – they’re much more talented and smarter than we are. Let them show it. Give me Boulez talking retrograde inversions any day.

The Andante quasi recitativo, for strings, by the little-known Swedish composer Elfrida Andrée (1841-1929), opened the concert. Andrée was a remarkable musician and woman by all accounts (she owns a lot of “firsts,” including being the first female telegraph operator in Sweden), but this Andante, at a mere 5 minutes, was too slender a piece to kick things off. It broods a little, it indulges a tender, loving melody and a few lush harmonies and splits. Something more substantial by her was called for. 

Beethoven & Sibelius


Tianyi Lu, conductor

Yulianna Avdeeva, piano

Pacific Symphony


Elfrida Andrée: Andante quasi recitativo for strings

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4

Sibelius: Symphony No. 2

When: 8 p.m. May 16-18

Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: Remaining seats available between $29-$215



 Classical music coverage at Culture OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Culture OC makes all editorial decisions.


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