Sunday, May 1, 2011

Rare and Special

Saturday night at the Symphony was one of those far too rare nights when the audience was so excited by a performance that total strangers felt compelled to talk to each other about it.   The occasion was the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto by the Saint Louis Symphony with guest artist Stephen Hough.

I am not that familiar with the Second Piano Concerto, although I’m sure I must have heard a recording of it at some point in my life.  After all, I love Tchaikovsky and I love piano.  So I must have heard it at some point.  But I don’t remember it and I know I’ve never heard it live.

Unlike the First Piano Concerto which I heard a couple of weeks ago at the symphony, the Second Piano Concerto seems more thematically coherent.  It also features virtuoso moments for the pianist, especially in the first movement, in which he can play solo in a cadenza-like section that is very long. 

Hough is a brilliant pianist and by that I don’t just mean that he is technically brilliant, although he is. I again sacrificed acoustics for sight lines and sat orchestra level on the side where I could see the pianist’s hands. There were moments in which his hands were moving so fast that they were actually a blur.  I’m not exaggerating.  His notes are crisp and clean and his pedal work is inspired.  But that isn’t what makes an awe inspiring performance.  There are many technically proficient pianists out there who give fine, but not particularly special performances.

What made this performance breathtaking was the almost symbiotic relationship Hough had with the orchestra.  They were as one.   Compare this with the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto which featured Yefim Bronfman in which Bronfman played beautifully from a technical point of view.  But he and the orchestra were not as one in parts of the piece.

Some of the credit for Saturday night certainly goes to Ward Stare, SLSO’s Resident Conductor who did a fine job.  He’s very young (or at least very young-looking) and I predict will be evolve into a popular conductor with audiences because he conducts in the dramatic style that audiences love to watch.  But the orchestra sounded perfect under him and if there wasn’t complete musical sympathy between he and Hough, it was not apparent. 

But even technical fireworks and a symbiotic relationship with the orchestra aren’t enough to raise the hair on my arms and send tingles up them as happened to me on Saturday.  There is … something.  Some undefineable musicianship where an artist seems to be not only at one with the other performers but at one with the piece being performed.  Hough clearly loves performing this work and finding the moments in a particular  performance of the work with a particular  orchestra and a particular  conductor.  Sometimes it all comes together as it did on Saturday. 

That is the beauty of live performance.  The work may be a classic, performed time and again, but the performance is unique.  There will never be another performance exactly like Saturday night’s performance.  It is rare to witness a performance where all of the pieces come together, it is usually enough when most of them come together.  But when they all come together in a unique moment, the audience is part of the specialness and when the lights come up total strangers turn to each other and say “wow.  Just wow.”

Hough will be back with SLSO to perform the first three Rachmaninoff piano concerti next year.  I want to be there for all three.  And I’m not going to sacrifice sound for sight – I want the best sound I can get to enjoy those performances to the max.