A combination of powerhouse performers took the stage at the Myerson Symphony Center Thursday evening to play some famous showpieces. Chinese enfant terrible conductor Long Yu put the orchestra to work as he tackled Ravel’s Technicolor orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Then, Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein, known for his magnificent technique and explosive performances, shook the rafters with Rachmaninoff’s massive Piano Concerto No. 3.
The program opened with Chinese composer Qigang Chen’s own set of musical pictures titled Wu Xing (The Five Elements). We heard sparkling waves in the Water movement. Wood relied on wooden percussion. Fire used tone clusters to indicate flames as they arise and retreat. Earth was a series of fuzzy chords that morphed into each other. Metal clanged appropriately. Overall, it is a fascinating piece that splashes large swaths of orchestral color, like a Chinese character painted large on a wall with a mop.
Ravel was a master orchestrator, and his version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, originally for piano, is his best work in this genre.
Yu succeed in keeping the piece from getting away from him while still giving the players their heads. He also lived up to his reputation as a perfectionist, paying attention to the smallest of details (when he thought he could make a difference on the fly).
He conducted with impeccable technique, mirroring his hands only occasionally. But mostly, the left hand was busy shaping the piece. He balanced as he went along, shushing this section from time to time while encouraging others.
Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote his third piano concerto for his first tour of the United States in 1909. Quite a calling card! This transcendentally demanding concerto is a staple of young contestants at the Cliburn.
Thus, we are used to hearing perfect and pristine performances from teenagers. Gerstein’s version was something else.
Now in his 30s, the astounding pianist uses “Rach 3” as his calling card and puts his own stamp on almost every measure. As expected, he plays all the notes (no small task), but it all sounds different somehow. Maybe it is his jazz experience that allows him to color the piano part with unusual accents and more casual phrasing than normally heard. Further, he does not go for the overarching architecture. Instead, he divides it up into musical units that he strings together to make the whole. This was a completely original performance.
Much like the recorded performance of the composer himself, Gerstein attacked the concerto with abandon, willing to sacrifice a Cliburn-esque pristine performance for passion.