Vondráček and Guerrero prove to be the best of the Blossom Festival

United StatesUnited States Blossom Festival 2022 [4]Rachmaninoff, Adams: Lukáš Vondráček (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / Giancarlo Guerrero (conductor). Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 13.8.2022. (MSJ)

Giancarlo Guerrero © Kurt Heinecke

Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No.2


One of the great joys of live concerts is the surprise of unexpected connections. Sergei Rachmaninoff and John Adams aren’t composers with immediate, obvious connections but, in practice, Rachmaninoff’s most popular concerto and Adam’s mid-1980s quasi-symphony fit together wonderfully in this Blossom Music Festival concert.

The key was the rich way conductor Giancarlo Guerrero sculpted the lyrical climax in the center of the first movement of the Adams, emphasizing a romantic sweep that wasn’t all that far removed from Rachmaninoff, despite the minimalist textures of much of the work.

Guerrero was certainly on his game, guiding the orchestra with bold, clear gestures through those ferociously difficult textures in the Adams, whose title cheekily salutes Arnold Schoenberg’s music textbook Harmonielehre. Not only is it harmonically rich, it is rhythmically complex too. Unlike, say, Philip Glass, early John Adams has constantly mutating minimalist patterns with unpredictably changing meters. The composer himself conducted the work downtown over thirty years ago, a solid performance that was met respectfully by the audience, proving that he was a composer who had arrived to the mainstream. This time around, the piece was given greater drive, and was met rapturously by a crowd that even threatened to erupt in full ovation as early as the end of the first movement!

It helped that the piece is better suited to the grand acoustics of the Blossom pavilion than the smallish hall in Severance Music Center. Blossom’s reverberation blended the extensive percussion battery with the rest of the orchestra, while giving it all a cosmic glow. Guerrero made sure that key details emerged from the textures to make their impact, whether the manic pounding of the first movement or the desolate bell in the closing pages of the harrowing slow movement. The finale started with gently floating glimmers of sound, magically mirroring the night rising through the dusk outside the pavilion, but the growth of energy pulled the audience along into the work’s thrilling final pages. Delightfully, the camera facing the conductor caught a glimpse of Guerrero just after the piece ended, raising his eyebrows and puffing out his cheeks as if to say to the orchestra, ‘Wow, that was a workout!’ Indeed it was, and it was a vital, moving performance, one of the best of the summer.

But one wouldn’t have to look far for competition for ‘best of the festival’, for the first half of the concert was an equally triumphant romp through Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. The concert was originally planned to be Daniil Trifonov’s return to Cleveland, but he bowed out on short notice with an arm injury.

Making his Blossom debut as a substitute, Lukáš Vondráček, a 35-year-old Czech master, played with a wide range of color and emotion, wielding power when needed but never pounding gratuitously. Where some players keep to a restricted palette of tone, Vondráček showed how much difference could be made just by constantly changing the nature of his touch on the keys, finding delicate wonders as often as he conjured deep sonority. The orchestra responded in like manner, including stellar solos from Daniel McKelway (clarinet) and Nathaniel Silberschlag (horn), while Guerrero refused to go on autopilot, actively shaping the orchestral contribution to multiply Rachmaninoff’s musical impact.

Vondráček gifted the crowd with Chopin’s posthumously published C-sharp minor nocturne, marking him as a pianist to watch: not just a brilliant technician but one who really lives in the moment of the music, one who brings it to life.

The whole concert was teeming with life, turning a lovely summer evening into an unforgettable one.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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