Saturday, December 7, 2013
By CHRISTOPHER HYDE
I thought that music director Robert Moody had programmed the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 merely as a crowd pleaser to offset the modernism of "Mothership" and the intellectualism of Copland's Symphony No. 3 at the opening concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra season.
WHO: Portland Symphony Orchesta
WHEN: Oct. 7; repeats Oct. 9
WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, Portland
The old warhorse, however, turned out to be a derby winner in the hands of pianist Andrew Russo, best known for his recordings of contemporary music and fusion jazz. Russo's interpretation, ably abetted by the orchestra, took the quintessential Romantic piece back to its barbaric beginnings, revealing it as something new under the sun.
Russo is also an unsuccessful New York politician, thank heaven.
The opening of the concerto, while so brilliant that it appeared to be the result of a specially prepared piano, was nevertheless a bit uncertain at times, as pianist and conductor settled on tempo and dynamics. Once that was done, however, the collaboration was a sheer delight, unveiling secrets never before heard live or in recordings. The Tchaikovsky No. 1 sounded positively modern.
In addition to power and velocity, Russo exhibited a beautiful singing tone and effective use of fermata (pauses) in the slow movement, aka "Wind of the western sea ..."
The finale, taken at breakneck speed, was the real eye-opener. In its contemporary use of ferocious Russian dance tunes, it could have been written by Stravinsky, or at least Khachaturian. The exchanges between piano and orchestra, especially the imitations of rapid downward scales, were impressive, given the tempo, and the excitement never ceased.
The program opened with Mason Bates' "Mothership," a space-odyssey fantasy that makes good use of perpetual motion to contrast with upwellings of unusual instrumental timbres and just a taste of electronic music. It did not tax the audience's tolerance for dissonance and, while not rising much above the level of movie music, was pleasant to follow.
It is hard to know what to say about Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3, except that the orchestra did it full justice, with a rich brass choir, fantastic woodwinds and percussion, and stellar performances by everyone else.
The symphony itself, a sort of "Enigma Variations" on the composer's "Fanfare for the Common Man," could benefit from some severe editing. There is simply not enough musical material in the fanfare to justify four long movements. It seems to be program music but it's hard to figure out what the program might be -- the seasons? the ages of man?
I opt for the seasons because of the lovely third movement, which rivals Bartok's depictions of the sounds of a summer night. And is that a quote from "Porgy and Bess"?
The finale is worth waiting for. Just when one thinks the explication of the magnificent fanfare can't get any better, Copland raises it to a spiritual plane through the use of the woodwinds. That deserved its standing ovation as much as the Tchaikovsky.
The concert will be repeated Tuesday and is decidedly worth attending.
Christopher Hyde's Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at email@example.com.