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    Concert Review: IRIS winds up season with class

    Pianist Watts adds master's final touch

    By Jon W. Sparks - The Commercial Appeal -

    The IRIS Orchestra ended its season Saturday night with what has become its usual mix of intriguing programming and stellar talent.

    The guest performer was pianist Andre Watts, who has been a highly regarded artist in the 45 years since he burst on the scene as a 16-year-old prodigy, impressing the likes of Leonard Bernstein and wowing orchestras around the world with his virtuosity.

    That skill was beautifully on display at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre in his performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor"), a piece grand and soaring in itself, but given a particularly sensitive emotive interpretation by Watts.

    He was in full command of the work, forceful when needed and incredibly delicate during quieter passages. It is a gorgeous and virtuosic work. Sometimes even the finest players just phone in a performance after years of having played it. Not so with Watts, who made the "Emperor" as fresh and compelling as it could be.

    He followed with an encore of a Chopin nocturne that matched the Beethoven in beauty and sensitivity.

    The concert opened with a lighthearted -- but not light -- work by American composer John Harbison. "The Most Often Used Chords" has a story behind it, as you might guess. Harbison once bought a music notebook that provided a gratuitous listing of what it called the 10 most often used chords. He decided to have some fun with the notion.

    While maestro Michael Stern described the work as tongue-in-cheek, which it certainly is, it also is a fully realized and fascinating composition. Even if the inspiration was entirely ordinary, the art emerged from what Harbison did with it. Sometimes it was intentionally lugubrious, occasionally Looney Tunes, but always inventive.

    The second piece of the evening was Faure's "Masques et Bergamasques," composed in 1919 but fairly retro for the day with evocations of the 18th and 19th centuries.

    In all the performances, the IRIS Orchestra performed with a precision and depth that has become standard. The musicians played beautifully, capping a season that has been rich in variety -- kicking off with one weird concert hijacked by Martin Short. But in every case, solid musicianship and programming inventiveness ruled.