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Monday, April 15, 2019

War and Pieces

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Pianist Gary Graffman, who turned 90 last October, is still active as a teacher and performer (and numbers Lang Lang and Yuja Wang among his distinguished students. Here’s a look at a visit he paid to New York’s Capital Region nearly fifteen years ago.


BIRTH, DEATH, THE THREAT OF WAR, the aftermath of war – the programmatic or circumstantial elements of the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s triumphant performance at the Troy Music Hall last week touched on topics never more relevant than today, painting them through the emotional abstraction of music. Which may be the most compelling emotional manipulator of all.

Gary Graffman | Photo by Charles Grove
By the time Ravel’s “Concerto for the Left Hand” kicked into gear, with piano and orchestra merrily jazzing along, the effect was very uplifting. An excellent melding of soloist and orchestra gave the work both excitement and transparency.

By way of background, pianist Paul Wittgenstein (philosopher Ludwig’s brother) had his right arm shot away during World War I, and thereafter built up a commissioned repertory of left-hand-only piano works that included concertos by Prokofiev, Britten and, of course, Ravel, who wrote his contribution alongside his other (two-handed) piano concerto.

Wittgenstein also paved the way for soloists like Gary Graffman and Leon Fleischer, both of whom became right-hand-disabled at their career peaks. Graffman (who has himself commissioned works from Ned Rorem and William Bolcom), now president of the renowned Curtis Institute, has lost none of his performance fire, and, unless you could see the keyboard as he played, you’d easily forget the work’s dexterous restriction.

Three movements flow uninterruptedly in the 20-minute concerto, which begins with a big brass statement that soon colors into unmistakable Ravel-ian tones. The piano enters with a cadenza-like passage (which caused the dour Wittgenstein to grumble that if he wanted a solo work he’d have asked for one) of brilliant keyboard color.

The first hint of a warlike sentiment comes with the martial aspect that informs the Allegro, and I’m convinced that the composer was mocking the pomp of battle preparation. Although the work has fewer overt jazz elements than Ravel’s other piano concerto, it adds syncopated elements along the way before romping to an exciting, almost sardonic finish. You couldn’t have asked for a better soloist, and conductor David Alan Miller’s work with the orchestra was as accomplished as I’ve ever heard it.

Given the challenges the orchestra regularly faces, this isn’t surprising. The amount of new and unfamiliar music this ensemble prepares and presents is impressive, and they continue to turn in crisp, compelling performances of such. Like Chris Theofanidis’s “Rainbow Body,” which opened the program.

Inspired by music of Hildegard von Bingen, it reworks material from her Ave Maria, o auctrix vite, while paying tribute to the Tibetan notion of death as a passage into light (hence the title). Suitably mysterious in character, the brief piece opens with a Vaughan Williams-ish chorale sound before crashing into a Max Steiner moment with fortissimo orchestra. The Ave Maria appears in a few different guises, notably in the strings, while the use of brass throughout is most effective.

Stephen Danker was on hand to introduce the premiere of his “Dark into Light,” presenting a musical portrait of an awakening, often using Hebraic melodies and motifs as the piece builds toward the exciting hora that concludes it. Melodic, rhythmic and very accessible, it was another showcase for a composer impressively skilled at using the orchestra’s available color. And the players were equally impressive. String sound has never been better, and the persuasive solo moments by concertmaster Jill Levy indicate why.

Death, dismemberment, rebirth – and then Shostakovich. His Sixth Symphony, which dates from 1939, was announced as a portrait of Lenin and turned into something entirely different. The discredited Solomon Volkov is quoted in the program notes propounding his thesis that Shostakovich played the role of clown to appease his deadly opponents, but this symphony alone discredits that notion.

Building on the despair of the Largo from the Fifth Symphony, the opening Largo of the Sixth is a tragic cry for help, reaching an almost unbearable bleakness in its nearly twenty minutes. All of the instruments seem naked here; there’s no room for anything but total commitment, and Miller and the orchestra were dead on.

Two short, fast, more-sardonic-than-Ravel movements close the work in a jaunty, Prokofiev-like manner, and I think we all nevertheless felt like we’d been through a wringer. The political overtones I was hearing may seem out of place, but I certainly emerged from the concert treating those around me a whole lot nicer.

Albany Symphony Orchestra
Gary Graffman, pianist
David Alan Miller, conductor
Troy Music Hall, April 15

Metroland Magazine, 21 April 2005

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