Friday, January 16, 2009

NSO - Stravinsky, Crumb & Rachmaninoff - 01/15/09

Stravinsky: Jeu de cartes, Ballet in Three Deals
Crumb: A Haunted Landscape
Rachmaninoff: Piano concerto No 3 in D Minor, Op. 30 - Leif Ove Andsnes

Last night's program was kind of eclectic, with a modern American piece sandwiched between two giant of Russian music. The big draw was, of course, the much celebrated Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes who was there to tackle one of Rachmaninoff's crown achievements: his piano concerto No 3, or "Rach 3". Ilan Volkov, the young chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, was back for the second time conducting the NSO, and working with our star guest for the very first time. The only apparent common element among these three works was that they had all been premiered in New York but, regardless of the trivia, we were all looking forward to a nice warm musical evening as the temperatures were rapidly free falling outside.

Stravinsky's Jeu de cartes (Card game) was a lot of fun. Stravinsky was a keen card player and even used his favorite pastime to write a ballet score for Balanchine on that theme, a Ballet in Three Deals. Even without the visual element or any particular inclination for card playing, I found these 20 minutes of continuous music full of excitement and intricacies as each deal featured the shuffle and the actual play.
After all the excitement of card playing, Crumb's Haunted Landscape took us down a very mysterious road to a mystical landscape. Played by four musicians on more than 50 percussion instruments from all over the world, it was a richly and delicately evocative tone poem, pushing the limits of what an orchestra can do, and doing it very successfully.
Not only an incredible musical piece by itself, Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto is also the bona fide star of the movie Shine, based on the life of Australian pianist David Helfgott, where his increasingly desperate attempts to tame the formidable beast eventually lead to his breakdown. Ironically enough, composing "Rach 3" undeniably helped Rachmaninoff recover from a breakdown of his own. Far from the instantly hummable melodies of his second piano concerto, allegedly his most popular, the third is a exciting combination of technical fireworks, for sure, but also lushly lyrical passages and even moments of quiet introspection. There is a lot going on in that piece, but yesterday the high point had to be the beautifully chaotic cadenza, where the pianist let us see the light through all the turmoil. His incredible fingers apparently barely touching the keys, he nevertheless did not let his remarkable dexterity overwhelm the romanticism of the emotional content, and took us to the finish line exhausted, but deeply grateful.

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