Substitute pianist doesn't disappoint

26. Jan. 2003 – The Richmond Symphony seems to have unusually good luck with guest pianists when they don't show up. One short-notice cancellation brought us Yefim Bronfman as a replacement, another introduced us to Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Now comes Valentina Lisitsa, a Ukrainian-American pianist who plays Rachmaninoff's Piano concert No. 4 in G minor as convincingly as the originally scheduled Horatio Gutierrez would have - probably more so.

The concerto is hardly the easiest introduction she could have chosen. It is the most obscure of Rachmaninoff's five works for piano and orchestra, lacking the big tunes and structural cohesion of the Second and Third concertos and "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini", but it is at least as formidable a fingerbuster. The pianist must summon more than virtuoso technique and great stamina for this work, because subtle tone colorations and poetic phrasing, concentrated in the central largo movement, are its principal attractions. The fast outer movements are too episodic to sweep the listener along and too melodically barren to make more than fleeting impressions.

In Saturday's performance, Lisitsa played powerfully, even eloquently. in high-powered, volatile exchanges with the orchestra, but made music most persuasively as she deftly exploited the concerto's lyrical and coloristic possibilities. Her performance left me imagining how she might sound in the "Paganini Rhapsody" or, better yet, a concerto of Chopin or Schumann.

Eckart Preu, the symphony's associate conductor, drew animated, robust accompaniment from the orchestra in the Rachmaninoff, but the conductor and orchestra made much stronger impressions in the symphonic showpieces that bracket the concerto in this "Exotic East" program.

In the rarely played "Alladin" Suite of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, Preu italicized every exotica effect in a succession of quasi-Oriental dances, expertly clarified the complex texture of the four-bands-at-once "Marketplace at Isphahan" and projected the opening "Oriental Festival March" and closing "African Dance" with visceral impact. Oboist Katherine Needleman and clarinetist Ralph Skiano, who played highly atmospheric solos to the Nielsen, did the same, alongside flutist Mary Boodell, English horn player Michael J. Lisicky, bassoonist Jonathan Freedman, French horn player Alan Paterson, trumpeter Rolla Durham and trombonist David Perkel, in Rimski-Korsakov's "Sheherazade". The wind players' contributions were at least as stellar as those of the string soloists - violinist Karen Johnson, accompanied on harp by Lynette Wardle, and cellist Neal Cary. This "Sheherazade" spotlights the winds by default. With a less than lavish complement of 4 strings at his command, Preu has chosen to emphasize color, clarity and balance over tonal mass or sonic opulence. The approach succeeds thanks largely to the quality of solo playing.

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