The Stamford Symphony opened their 2012-2013 season on October 6 with a program both festive and thoughtful. The event centered on piano soloist Valentina Lisitsa who joined the orchestra for the daunting Piano Concerto No. 3 by Rachmaninoff.
Lisitsa is a fascinating musician. Videos on her YouTube channel are approaching 48,600,000 views. This is rarified air in the classical music world, and it represents a model for grassroots career development in the 21st century. Lisitsa signed with Decca Classics last spring and her latest recording, “Valentina Lisitsa Live at the Royal Albert Hall” is impressive. The opportunity to hear her play live in Stamford was memorable.
Lisitsa wanted a fast tempo for the opening movement of the Rachmaninoff third which allowed the haunted opening tune to sound vocal and song-like. Unlike most pianists, she allowed the tricky figuration that follows to flow in undercurrent as the orchestra restated the tune. Pianists who attempt to project passages like these over the orchestra lose the dimensional qualities that Listisa inhabited. During powerful music, like the culmination of the development, her playing was fierce and vibrant and full of colors. But my favorite passages were in places like the F major secondary theme of the first movement where Lisitsa found an engaging balance between playfulness and passion.
During her preconcert discussion with conductor Eckart Preu, she claimed that the reputation this concert has acquired as “the most difficult piano concerto” comes largely from “Hollywood.” It may be that the movie “Shine” created that particular layer of perception, but the fact remains that the work has many tricky orchestral entrances and it is also exceptionally hard on pianos.
Preu impressed with the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in the second half of the event. Sibelius 2 is a work that rewards careful attention and was a good choice for Preu. Several seemingly insignificant textural elements, like the placement of trills, produced rich and often surprising textures. Another example, drawn from many possibilities, was the way that Preu worked with timpanist Benjamin Herman to make the part a prominent element of the unfolding. The second movement opens in the timpani, but Preu kept it prominent even within the dialog often called the “Don Juan theme.” The timpani part was now on our minds and the ending of the finale took on a new significance.
The evening began in high spirits with the Overture to Ruslan & Ludmilla by Glinka. An added surprise not listed on the program was a tribute performance of a charming work called “Lullaby” written by Hans-Peter Preu (Eckart’s brother), and commissioned by Varina Mason Steuert who died in August. Steuert was a long-time member of the Stamford Symphony Board of Directors.
Surprises in the program, in balances within the orchestra, and in presenting a soloist who has set classical music on YouTube on its ear; Stamford Symphony is off to a good start this season.