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RVSO conducting candidate brings down the house in tryout

Chelsea Tipton II on Friday night in Ashland turned what was supposed to be an audition into something more like a triumph.

Competing for the job of conductor and music director of the Rogue Valley Symphony, Tipton led the orchestra and guest artist and pianist Roberto Plano through a sweet, passionate turn at Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. Five, the "Emperor," then returned after the intermission to blow the doors off with a towering performance of Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique."

"I know there are four more (guest conductors) coming, but as far as I'm concerned they could call it right now," one patron said at intermission to a chorus of hear-hears.

In what RVSO officials are calling "The Year of the Search," five conductors from around the nation have been invited to conduct one concert series each during the 2009-2010 season, each show featuring a program chosen by the RVSO. One of the conductors is to be offered the job, succeeding Arthur Shaw, who retired earlier this year.

The Beethoven-Berlioz concert was presented Friday in Southern Oregon University's Music Recital Hall. It was repeated Saturday at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in Medford, and will have its final performance at 3 p.m. today at the High School Performing Arts Center, 830 N.E. Ninth St., Grants Pass.

Tipton, music director of the Symphony of Southeast Texas in Beaumont, said in a pre-concert talk that both works on the program showed classical music beginning to change with Romantic influences. He said serious music should be "a buffet," and that an orchestra should offer programs of less-familiar music, although not as season openers. He said he loves American music — Gershwin, Copland, Ellington — but that it's mainly through a commitment to the classic repertoire that an orchestra is built to a refined level.

The Beethoven concerto, now just a year short of its 200th anniversary, began with those big orchestral chords, each followed by a short cadenza on the piano. Then Plano gave a lively reading of the long piano introduction.

Plano, who lives near Milan, has performed with orchestras in Europe and elsewhere and recorded works by Chopin, Liszt and Scriabin. His international career was launched when he won the Cleveland International Piano Competition in 2001. He played with fluidity, passion and an unaffected boyishness, sometimes allowing his arms to fly off the keyboard at the end of an intricate passage and leaning back a moment almost like a prizefighter finding respite in a clinch.

After a sometimes thunderous first movement that's fully half the concerto, he delivered the second with gentle poetry. When the orchestra moved into the third movement via a simple note on the bassoon, Plano repeated the main theme, more urgently, and the orchestra resumed the conversation. Plano's playing is lithe and precise and keyed to musical depths beneath the flash.

But it was Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" that brought down the house. "An Episode in the Life of an Artist" was written in 1830, some time after Berlioz fell in love at first sight with Harriet Smithson, an actress he saw playing Ophelia in a production of "Hamlet." Widely seen as a seminal piece of the early Romantic period, the symphony is pure program music, a musical tale of sex, drugs and murder.

Berlioz explained in his elaborate program notes that it's the story of "an artist gifted with a lively imagination" who has "poisoned himself with opium" because of unrequited love. He is believed to have composed at least some of it under the influence of opium. Leonard Bernstein described it as the first musical expedition into psychedelia.

"Berlioz tells it like it is," Bernstein said. "You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral."

Tipton led the orchestra in stoking the coals without let-up through all five movements. The ball scene was crazed with frenetic energy, the scene in the country relaxed but disturbing. The timpani-driven march to the scaffold was played with rising, nightmarish power followed by the pizzicato notes of the severed head rolling into a waiting basket.

The adrenalin-charged finale with its witches and monstsers was exhilarating, and even after the end the excitement hung in the air.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.