A trifecta of Russian concertos with a Fort Worth connection

Thu Aug 06, 2009 at 1:40 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

One of three soloists, Olga Kern performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Wednesday night at Ravinia.

On the surface, the idea of bringing three gifted female pianists together for a night of Russian concertos—each of them the composers’ first work for piano and orchestra—looked like a gimmick. Audiences love Russian music. Promise them some flashy Rachmaninoff spiced with a little Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and box office will be good. Olga Kern is an audience favorite, and music lovers who might not turn out for lower-profile talent like Joyce Yang and Lise de la Salle will come to hear her.

But something more subtle was going on with this concert. For 32 years, Conlon has been deeply involved with the Van Cliburn Competition, held every four years in Fort Worth, Tex. For the competition’s final round, pianists play both a solo recital and a concerto with Conlon and the Fort Worth Symphony. He is passionate about making sure than these concerto performances are true collaborations, not simply another chance for soloists to flaunt their own talents. He works closely with the young competitors, helping them learn how to listen intensely and respond to an orchestra and a conductor.

Wednesday’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra program, then, offered more than an encounter with three worthy soloists. It gave Ravinia audiences insight into a different facet of Conlon’s musical life.

The evening started with Yang in Shostakovich’s astringent and rambunctious Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Strings and Trumpet in C minor, written in 1932 when Shostakovich was 25. Next came de la Salle in Prokofiev’s more lyrical concerto in D, which had its premiere in 1912 when Prokofiev was 21. 

Kern closed the evening with the first of Rachmaninoff’s four piano concertos, a work in F-sharp Minor listed as Opus 1. Rachmaninoff was in his late teens when he began composing it in 1891, but he reworked it several times over the years and it didn’t take its final shape until 1919.

All three pianists have prodigious technical skills, and they dug well below the surface to find the emotional heart of the music they played. A certain similarity of approach was inevitable since the composers shared a homeland and were all grounded in the same late Romantic-era aesthetic. But each soloist arrived with a distinctive personal touch.

Yang galloped through Shostakovich’s jagged melodies with gusto, reveling in their sardonic dissonance without losing track of rhythmic pulse that kept the concerto’s high-speed passages firmly on the rails. She had a limpid touch, however, a way of making even the most jangling moments sound full-bodied and unhurried. In the final movement, CSO principal trumpet Christopher Martin was her equal, merrily matching her manic ragtime with circus-band swagger.

Making her Ravinia debut, de la Salle and the CSO shared a grandly sweeping, Romantic vision of Prokofiev’s concerto. She easily tossed off its showy runs and fitful ornaments while the orchestra supported her with a strong current of flowing, richly colored strings. In the quiet middle movement, she became a soulful wanderer, her simple melodies drifting above the hushed strings and an occasional lonely call from Martin’s muted trumpet. 

Kern brought the ease of a veteran performer to Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto, sounding relaxed and flexible even in its most virtuosic moments. This is an odd work for anyone expecting the kind of big, instantly memorable melody that surfaces in Rachmaninoff’s more famous subsequent concertos. There was no lack of thundering octaves, however, and the slow second movement’s theme was dappled and lush. This is Kern’s fourth visit to Ravinia since 2002, and she seemed entirely at home with Conlon and the CSO. Moods shift abruptly in this concerto, and soloist and orchestra were highly responsive to each other.

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