A Dazzling Celebration of Gary Graffman’s 90th birthday

02/11/2018

Thomas, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky: Haochen Zhang (piano), Curtis Symphony Orchestra / Giancarlo Guerrero and Yue Bao (conductors), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 28.10.2018. (BJ)

Thomas — Brio

Rachmaninoff — Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30

Stravinsky — Petrushka (1947 version)

Everything conspired to make this concert at once a worthy celebration of Gary Graffman’s 90th birthday and a musical experience worthy of the much-loved former Curtis president’s lofty standards.

Considered in advance, the program seemed to promise more in the way of variety than of stylistic interconnection. It looked as if there would be something for everybody: a curtain-raiser from a contemporary American composer who actually — in contrast, I fear, to some of her colleagues — writes music, followed by one of the world’s favorite big romantic piano concertos, and then after intermission by a perennial ‘modern classic’ (if a work whose original version is already into its second century in the repertoire can really be called ‘modern’).

There was indeed ample variety in the result, but both the shaping of the program and its execution achieved a cohesion that was truly revelatory.

Premiered a few months ago by the Des Moines Symphony, which commissioned the piece in honor of  benefactor Carolyn Bucksbaum, Augusta Read Thomas’s well-named Brio provided eleven minutes of effervescence to set the ball rolling. This is lithe and sparkling music that never sits down. As is customary with the opening work at a Curtis orchestral concert, it was played under the direction of one of the institute’s conducting fellows. Shanghai-born Yue Bao led it with impressive panache and much technical skill. Unfazed by the challenges that faced her in the music’s gossamer textures and inventive rhythms, she was also able to make the occasional bigger moments effective without exaggeration.

After the pleasure this opening afforded, it was with the concerto that the stimulating surprises started. Giancarlo Guerrero, born 49 years ago in Nicaragua and now a citizen of Costa Rica, is quite a conductor, and his leadership, abetted by the contributions of an equally accomplished and subtle soloist and a lavishly talented student orchestra, pulled off the rare feat of making Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto sound like a work I was hearing for the first time.

Now 28 years old, Haochen Zhang — another native of Shanghai, and a former student of Gary Graffman — had already carried off the gold medal at the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition when he graduated three years later from Curtis. Happily, he is not one of those keyboard lions that feel obliged to constantly roar. There is no lack of power in his playing, but it was his ability to match conductor and orchestra for delicacy and warmth that made this a collaboration of irresistible artistry and conviction. And his choice of Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin for an exquisitely played encore served as corroboration of his artistic seriousness and stylistic acumen.

Possessed of a no less intense seriousness (leavened by disarming flashes of humor), Maestro Guerrero, whose manner on the podium is at once authoritative and at the same time warmly collaborative, seems to be at home in a wide range of styles. When the music wants to dance, he dances with it, though never overdoing body language to the point of distraction. Particularly notable is what he can do with his left hand. When Pierre Boulez famously used his two arms to delineate vividly differentiated rhythms, the effect tended to be merely that of a technical tour de force. With Guerrero, by contrast, fingers that seem gracefully capable of operating quite independently of each other evoke a wealth of expressive nuance, rather in the way that both of Leopold Stokowski’s hands used to do all those years ago. (Sviatoslav Richter, amazingly, was able to summon a comparably polychromatic range of color and expression within a chord or line with each of the keys his individual fingers touched.)

But it was the delicacy of Guerrero’s way with textures and dynamics that most refreshingly revealed unsuspected aspects in a work that is by no means unfamiliar. The exceptional clarity of balance that allowed woodwinds and brass to sing through the texture immediately established the concerto’s unexpected aptness as a sympathetic program partner to Thomas’s piece. The music’s assertive moments thereby made a more telling contrast than they sometimes do, and the caressing sheen of soft string tone in the slow movement, matched eloquently near the end of the finale, completed the picture of an intellectually fascinating concerto strikingly different from the composer’s even more popular, and much more corporeal, No.2, with its prevailing saturated richness of sonority.

Petrushka perhaps made a less surprising end to the program, for its kaleidoscopic instrumentation is more obviously central to its well-known character. But here too, just as in the Rachmaninoff, the conductor’s exploration of sounds too often obscured in less meticulous performances, his brilliant pointing of rhythm, and his keen response to each dramatic crux forged a cogent link with the two preceding works, bringing the afternoon to a conclusion of satisfying coherence and infectious zest.

Bernard Jacobson

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