A Rarity Comes Before the Devilish and the Divine

United StatesUnited States Saint-Saëns, Prokofiev, Sibelius: Nikita Mndoyants (piano), Canton Symphony Orchestra / Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, 25.2.2017. (TW)

Saint-Saëns – Overture to La Princesse jaune (The Yellow Princess)
Prokofiev – Concerto No.2 for Piano and Orchestra in G minor
Sibelius – Symphony No.5 in E-flat major

On this program from the Canton Symphony Orchestra, the three works couldn’t have been more diverse in emotions. The overture from Saint-Saëns’ light-hearted operetta, La Princesse jaune (The Yellow Princess) ranks among the composers’ most charming, if often neglected, creations. Projecting infectious exuberance, the orchestra delivered breezy melodies and delightful rhythms with a Japanese ethereality.

Though the concert was billed as “Passionate Piano” – Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto No.2 featured Russian guest soloist Nikita Mndoyants – “Daunting Piano” might be more apropos. The concerto is famously difficult for the soloist, and can be equally so for some listeners. Amid its florid cadenzas are dizzying trills and torrents of sixteenth notes, relentlessly grinding rhythms, and acerbic dissonances. The orchestra often seemed part of the audience, reacting with both delight and and terror at where the piano was leading them.

Likewise, Maestro Zimmermann appeared fully invested in the sheer adrenalin rush. At one point during the piano arpeggios of the third movement, his baton twirled through the air in a quick blur and landed inside the piano with a distinctive clicking noise. It was a curious accident, yet oddly appropriate, like a punctuation mark in a run-on sentence.

The concerto has many such sentences. Some are notably piquant or lyrical, such as the Russian folk melody suggested in the final movement. But most are more strident and ferocious, uttered many times with breakneck speed, and Mndoyants, winner of the Mixon First Prize at the 2016 Cleveland International Piano Competition, demonstrated clarity, virtuosity, and fluidity. Beyond his technical prowess was command of dramatic nuances, articulated with steely determination. The triumphant cadence of the finale conjured visions of a victorious athlete crossing the finish line after an exhausting run, causing an outburst of bravos.

In the end, I learned something: challenging music is best experienced live. Even the finest recording can make its daring spirit palpable, but it’s best as an adventure unfolding in real time.

If Prokofiev’s concerto could be called devilish, then Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony is comparatively divine. “In a deep valley again,” the composer wrote in a 1915 diary entry. “But I already begin dimly to see the mountain that I shall surely ascend…God opens His door for a moment and His orchestra plays the fifth symphony.” Every section of the ensemble shone, rising to the occasion with radiance. Haunting horns, sweet and crisp winds, and soaring strings were just some of the many pleasures.

And then there is that glorious finale. Unique in the symphonic repertoire, a breathtaking set of six robust chords appears – joyous shouts really –  separated by silences, as if Heaven has ordered quiet. It was a reminder that silences can be potent notes, indeed adventures, unto themselves.

Tom Wachunas

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