The Review is In
A fearless hand ballet: Gerstein attacks a naughty RachFest with aperfectionist's cool for Symphony
If Sergei Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto could talk, it would say take me, love me, hug me, hold me, adore me.
And that's just the PG version. I suspect what's lurking between the lines would be more sultry, even naughty, not verbiage I'd be willing to put down on a critique of such a classic. But if you could picture a passionate romantic romp that was set in motion with a shot of vodka, a piece of rye and a spoon full of caviar, this soundtrack would not be in the background, it would be paramount to the escapade.
Former Houston Symphony assistant maestro Brett Mitchell was precise in his assessment of the work during the pre-concert rap session. Parsing over what emerged out of the first decade or so of the 20th century — namely Jean Sibelius' Violin Concerto in 1904, Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire in 1912 or Stravinsky's riotous Le sacre du printemps in 1913 — it's no surprise that the concerto's 1909 New York premiere with the composer at the keyboard didn't make a splash.
Russian romantic melodies whisk us away to a state of mind where we are free to reverie without bother, misbehave without consequences and fantasize without apology.
It's not terribly innovative, nor groundbreaking, nor controversial. It's written in conventional fast-slow-fast structure, albeit it does veer from standard sonata form.
Sure, the piece is grueling and written to be technically difficult to execute. It was Rachmaninoff's favorite and much preferred over the cumbersome Second Concerto which wascomposed just short of a decade earlier.
That same popularity ranking persists with classical concert goers nowadays — with a squabble for top spot with the composer's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini recently performed by Gabriela Montero and the Houston Symphony in March.
We may not have given the showpiece the courtesy of our attention a century ago.
But we care today and swoon over the opportunity for the Russian romantic melodies to whisk us away to a state of mind where we are free to reverie without bother, misbehave without consequences and fantasize without apology. Plainly, it's awesome.
A German start to RachFest
That's how Houston Symphony's RachFest with piano virtuoso Kirill Gerstein and English conductor Edward Gardner commenced Thursday night at Jones Hall, though not before starting with a Wagner overture.
Gerstein is the man. He opted for the first movement's big cadenza and soared through the work in its entirety.
What did the German composer's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg have to do with RachFest? I was curious, but before we had to ask, Gardner happily provided a not quite satisfying answer from the podium, noting that Wagner was an older contemporary that influenced the Russian.
A selection by Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov would be more Rusky than audiences could handle, joked Mitchell.
Why not Rachmaninoff's Scherzo of 1887, his earliest composition for orchestra? Though simplistically Dvorak-ish, it would have made an educational contrast to the Symphonic Dances of 1940, his last before his death in 1943. There's also the symphonic poem The Rock of 1893, another work that's not often heard.
Nevertheless, it was a big triumphant and reverberant prelude that showed off the full regal sound of the brass and beefy strings. Satisfying? Yes.
Gerstein is the man. He opted for the first movement's big cadenza — Rachmaninoff wrote two and its up to the performer to choose — and soared through the work in it's entirety. In the score, the composer provided some suggested cuts but Gerstein wouldn't have any of that. Anything less would be beneath him.
On the Houston Symphony blog, Gerstein writes: "Through its immense musical and technical challenges, as well as tone production demands, this concerto itself has the power to teach and dictate the necessary means of expression."
I found myself in a visual daze, regaining consciousness to chuckle while stupefied at the brilliant physical choreography of Gerstein's flowy hands.
Humbly confident and fearless on stage, wearing a simple conservative suit, button down and no tie, Gerstein is tallish and on the slender side. He possess the agility to handle brilliant swift passages and the sensitivity to do so with musical sensibilities.
With Rachmaninoff, you often hear one of every 20 or so notes on the page — too much pedal is usually the culprit here — yet Gerstein played with such clarity that audiences could really identify the most minute chromaticisms, evolutions and mutations in each idiosyncratic musical fragment.
It's often the gorgeous simplicity of the opening theme that determines the style of performance. He handled the opening with poise, with slight rubato where appropriate, manipulating boundless aural colors and setting quite the high expectation for the rest of the concerto, when the piano writing increases in mad complexity.
So captivating was his musicality, I found myself in a visual daze, regaining consciousness to chuckle while stupefied at the brilliant physical choreography of Gerstein's flowy hands. His fingers gyrated with strong elegance up and down the ivories, one hand on top of the other, intersecting and frolicking as if an elaborate ballet had been crafted just for him.
Was there a third hand? It seemed so at times, an optical illusion forged from brisk, stylish gesticulations.
Sitting near stage right has its benefits.
The performance wasn't without faults. Most had to do with synchronization difficulties between the accompanying body and the soloist, a common issue that arises because of distance between the musicians and the instruments' modes of attack. As a percussion instrument, the piano has a distinct front to the sound. Wind and string instruments have a delayed response so are often required to anticipate entrances, something that's counterintuitive to what's being heard.
One would expect a tired, overworked Gerstein at the conclusion. Yet the cool, collected and chilled soloist enjoyed three curtain calls with modest and appreciative gratitude, signing CDs and joining other symphony supporters — notably Lorraine and Ed Wulfe — out in the audience to revel in the second half of the first installment of RachFest.
If there was any indication that the 32-year-old pianist was the main event at RachFest, the considerable number of concert goers that left at intermission was the clue.
Too bad for them as they missed a skillful display of aesthetic fireworks in the Symphonic Dances during which principal oboist Anne Leek proved her instrument is just a toy at her disposal, principal flutist Aralee Dorough exercised her harmonically rich sound through ridiculously difficult passages and the ensemble in general made it obvious that it too, can handle its own concerto for orchestra.
It was a different Rachmaninoff 31 years later. The work is crafted out of much shorter musical bits rather than long gliding musical melodies.
Two more performances are scheduled for Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
After this weekend, RachFest continues Jan 13 to 15 with Piano Concertos No. 1 and No. 4 and Isle of the Dead with Hans Graf at the podium. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased online or by calling 713-224-7575.