Growing up can be tough. But it's worth it!
New World Center, Miami Beach
Samuel Barber: Symphony No. 1, Op. 9
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4 in F minor
Valentina Lisitsa (piano)
New World Symphony, Peter Oundjian (conductor)
V. Lisitsa (© Gilbert François)
Were you a pianist who was asked to play something very familiar, there is something both rewarding and frightening. The comforting part is that most of the audience will go nuts even if you have what you regard as an off night. They aren't applauding you, and even they don't know it, they are applauding the composer. But there are others who have heard the piece many times and have a lot to compare you to. You might want to bring your own interpretation to something but if that doesn't measure up to an audience's preconceived idea or it doesn't sound like their favorite recording, or you haven't yet earned the reputation of one of the piano stars, you're toast. Sad and unfair, but that is life.
So in came courageous Valentina Lisitsa up to the plate to try and move all of us with Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini which is a tough enough piece already considering all the musical acrobatics involved. But on top of it she has a responsibility to the orchestra, Rachmaninoff and herself to show that she has something special to offer. Ms. Lisitsa achieved this with total mastery.
It isn't that she just played the Rhapsody, she gave a dramatic rendering that made the most jaded classical music lovers discover this piece all over again. She started off with a rather impish expression appearing to be stirring the ingredients in a cauldron. She then gave a dramatic performance but unlike so many musicians, the music was never compromised, the sound completely pure. The tempos were not always what one expected thank goodness, Lisitsa is one who takes chances. Perhaps they will not always pay off but on this night she was in command and gave more than we could have imagined. If she has a recording of this piece, it is the one to own. Playful, sentimental, gripping and serious, it was all there and always with a light approach that one expects from the best. Ms. Lisitsa became a superstar with Miami music lovers; let's hope we see her again many times.
The evening started with a rarity. Samuel Barber's Symphony No. 1, often referred to as Symphony in One Movement. This is a particularly beautiful work which should be nearly as familiar as the Rachmaninoff. Barber is a much undervalued composer. Most know him only from the famous Adagio for Strings and maybe some opera lovers know the quintet from Vanessa but once one is exposed to something as memorable as this symphony, it is only logical to ask why Barber doesn't seem to be as well-known as Copland, Gershwin or even Bernstein among American composers.
But really there are four movements to this symphony, though there is no stopping between them. There is a very large and sort of expansive feel at the beginning which then goes into a fast and edgy though not unpleasant movement with tremendous staccato. This energy dissolves into a most hauntingly tender section with the beautiful oboe of Joseph Peters. The theme is repeated by startlingly intense strings followed by particularly dramatic and passionate conclusion. Many of the composers of this era seem to be borrowing from each other’s vocabularies, but Barber sounds so fresh that it is easy to imagine his was the one being most utilized. It is thrilling just to stop and consider all he was able to include in just over twenty minutes. This symphony deserves to be a classic.
This ambitious evening ended with something else that was not overly familiar, Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 4. Most of us who think of Vaughan Williams' orchestral music tend to regard it as gentle, rather peaceful; A Lark Ascending would seem an appropriate follow up on a program of such dramatics, maybe even violence with the Fourth Symphony. Vaughan Williams said that this symphony was just music and that listeners read in things that were unintended; but how can anyone not hear a war and its aftermath. It is conceivable that the energy of the third movement might suggest reconstruction after the war and that the fourth with its snappy rhythms imply a sense of realizing a future though ending with a warning. This is a piece that requires the strings at their best and the communication between sections was remarkable.
Not a soothing end to a taxing evening. The charming Canadian conductor Peter Oundjian made it clear before the start of this symphony that he was going to be putting us through our paces. Hopefully everyone had his seat belt fastened because this was a rough and thrilling ride. Thanks Mr. Oundjian.
And after Ms. Lisitsa and Mr. Oundjian, this evening belonged to the timpanist, Alex Wadner. Of course this instrument can provide exceptional drama but with Mr. Wadner, we additionally found a sort of brave beauty. Listing all of the great concerts at New World, this one would be at, or near the top.