Monday, December 8, 2008

Tchaikovsky’s 2nd piano concerto beams with Hough and Oregon Symphony

Guest artist Stephen Hough gleaned as many nuggets as possible from the Tchaikovsky Second Piano Concerto, but despite Hough’s considerable artistry, this concerto just cannot match the level of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Yet the rarely heard Second Concerto contrasted well with the Tchaikovsky’s “Festival Coronation March” and music from the beloved “The Nutcracker,” making the Oregon Symphony concert on Saturday evening a satisfying experience and sending everyone homeward with the hope that snow flurries might grace the evening air.

Hough, who has just been nominated once again for a Grammy, was dazzling in his interpretation of the concerto. He could just rip arpeggios up one side of the keyboard and down the other. He was in complete command of knucklebusting passages with fingers flying in every direction. The first movement ended with such a head of steam that many listeners spontaneously erupted with applause. The second movement featured sensitive playing by Hough with concertmaster Jun Iwasaki and principal cellist Nancy Ives. Together they created an intimate sound that drew us closer to the music. The third movement whirled in a dancelike trance at times, sweeping the audience into a standing ovation after it came to a close.

In so many of this other works, Tchaikovsky creates melodies with such ease that it’s astonishing, but in this concerto, he seemed to get stuck after inventing a theme or two. Perhaps Hough also felt that the piece falls short of the Tchaikovskian heights. In any case, he played Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” as an encore with great sensitivity.

The concert began the “Festival Coronation March,” a celebratory work that Tchaikovsky wrote on commission for the coronation of Czar Alexander III in 1883. The Oregon Symphony, led by its music director Carlos Kalmar, put some extra caviar on this piece with its robust brass section.

For the march and for the concerto, Kalmar rearranged the orchestra with basses and cellos on the left and violas and second violins on the right. By doing so, he could get Hough, Iwasaki, and Ives close together, and that seemed to work very well. I also enjoyed seeing that arrangement, because the Kirov Orchestra, which I heard twice in New York a couple of weeks ago, uses that same configuration.

The second half of the program was devoted to the music from Act II of “The Nutcracker.” I really enjoyed hearing this music live with a full orchestra, and I heard a lot of exceptional playing throughout from all sections. From my perch in the balcony, I could see Niel DePonte playing some large objects on his knees to make the castanet sounds. Among the many nifty sounds I heard were the buzzy flutter in the flutes, the elegant harps, the magical celeste, and evocative playing by the strings. There was no need for ballet dancers, because it was easy to picture them while the orchestra played. In fact, the little girl in the row in front of me stayed awake through the entire concert, and her eyes would light up at each theme.

As an encore, the orchestra played the Autumn movement from Glazunov’s “The Seasons.” Now if there had only been some snow outside…

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