Shostakovich Steals the Thunder at Fresno Philharmonic Opener
Pianist Vondracek proves his mettle with a blazing Rach 3.
By George Warren - September 26, 2010
The Fresno Philharmonic, led by Theodore Kuchar, opened its season Saturday at Saroyan Theatre with a very ambitious program that built its way up from the colorful Capriccio Espangnol, Op. 34 by Rimsky-Korsakov to the massive Piano Concerto No. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, played by 24 year old pianist Lukas Vondracek.
The brief work by Rimsky-Korsakov drew the listener to the music with its stirring harmony in the second movement, the bouncing bow of concertmaster Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, an English horn and some very well played solos by numerous musicians. The orchestra blended well and played with the precision one hopes for yet seldom hears in live performance.
By far, the most imaginative and skillfully composed work of the program was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9, Op. 70. Like the Capriccio Espangol, this symphony features a number of soloists from the orchestra and demands a lot from them. For some fascinating insight into the meaning of this music, read the MCF interview with Theodore Kuchar here.
The first movement sounds very happy and upbeat, and the orchestra played with enough energy to be convincing. However, this being Shostakovich, and the occasion of composition being to laud Stalin, one suspects that maybe under the surface, there is a bit of sarcasm. With that in mind, it is difficult to hear the music as anything but an insult to the demand of the dictator.
One of the featured instruments in this movement is the piccolo, and the sound of that instrument filled the hall and soared over everything else. It is such an astounding part that it stays in the mind long after the movement ends.
Next, the music turns more serious. A solo clarinet begins, and the whole woodwind section gradually enters, building a dense texture before giving way to the strings. Kuchar took a slow tempo here, and let the building happen gradually. One had the opportunity to enjoy the tone of the soloists.
One of the great joys of having our own orchestra here in Fresno is the opportunity to hear the best music ever composed performed live in town. If you have heard the Ninth Symphony before and you have played either the flute of the clarinet, you know how difficult the third movement must be. However, the Fresno Philharmonic made this seem as simple as a warmup exercise. Again the solo clarinet opens, but this time it is extremely fast. It is answered by the whole woodwind section and the movement is off to the races.
Finally, in the fourth movement, the bassoon takes the lead, and Larry Gardner, the longtime principal bassoonist, had his chance to shine. He played his role with fantastic tone and expression. Only in live performance does one hear the true character of that magnificent instrument.
Lukas Vondracek grabbed Rach 3 by the throat and showed a riveted audience that there is no need for a pianist to fear this music. Vondracek has both the delicate touch for the wickedly light and fast parts and the iron fists for the great “ossia” cadenza in the first movement. He also has sufficient musical sense to rise and fall with the dynamic level of the orchestra.
It appeared that his greatest challenge in this performance was warming up and locking into time with the orchestra. That took about ten minutes. One saw and heard some wonderful piano playing, but it seemed that the pianist was focused entirely on the keyboard in front of him and unaware of the large orchestra making its best effort to synchronize with him.
Once he settled in, however, he seemed to engage much more with the other musicians, and he managed to remove doubt about his ability to play skillfully with an orchestra.
In the second movement, the orchestra has a chance to play for an extended time without the piano, and this group made the most of it, playing with very warm tone and a true feel of the romantic era. Even better, the orchestra rose to great dynamic heights without losing the balance across sections, and Kuchar brought the Rachmaninoff to a thrilling close.