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Flying Fingers & Other Wonders at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Thu Oct 27th, 2016

Larry Rachleff on left, Jon Kimura Parker on right

The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, with about 80 students, offered a free concert with an ambitious program at Bard’s Sosnoff Theater. They opened with Bedřich Smetna’s Overture to The Bartered Bride, which provided a suitable warm-up through its energy, humor, and exuberant vitality.

Jon Kimura Parker arrived to play Sergei Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, Op. 26. Of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos, the third has always been the most popular, partly because of its greater balance and integration with the orchestra as well as its retrospective politics. The first movement sketches out ominous warnings of social instability buttressed by dissonant harmonies, while the second movement dramatizes the Russian Revolution with machine- gun rapidity, concluding with a death knell of the Old Order through a dramatic low-octave E-minor chord on the piano. The third Allegro movement, which Prokofiev called “an argument,” places the piano in argument with the “mob” orchestra. Menacing bassoons attempt to intimidate the piano, but it refuses to be intimidated, and even indulges in conjuring poetic, lyrical memories of pre-Soviet society. Pushed by abrasive horns, the piano turns to sarcasm, then aloof bemusement above the folly of the hauntingly muted dissonance of the woodwinds, through sweeping, whimsical glissandos that are an astonishment to hear and behold. The piano then mockingly delivers more ornamentation than the orchestra is capable of and several difficult double arpeggio runs that “defeat” the limitations of the orchestra, a concept probably derived from Chopin’s second piano concerto. Watching Parker’s fingers fly through those rushing paces was an event made more memorable and special by the presence of a small but appreciative audience that was visibly thrilled by the performance.

After intermission Pierre Jalbert’s (b. 1967, pictured in teaser photo) In Terra was given its world premiere. Unlike many contemporary compositions, this piece assumed a large canvas—the earth and its possible fate at the hands of humankind. Through themes of aerial drama involving the xylophone and unusual high-pitched conjuration with strings, the piece evoked the ominous subject of climate change, concluding with a question. The piece was full of drama, tension, conflict—unlike many contemporary compositions, it thought big, evoked original sounds from traditional instruments, traced a dynamic arc, and went somewhere instead of noodling around. Commissioned by the Shepard School, this layered composition deserves wide acclaim. It has legs to travel this globe. In Terra will be performed at Carnegie Hall this Friday evening.   

Witold Lutoslawski’s 1954 Concerto for Orchestra concluded the program. This concerto was Lutoslawski’s international breakout piece in the West, although he was never keen on promoting it, possibly because of its underlying anti-Soviet allegory. The first movement celebrates Polish folk music in the vein of Bartok, yet its concluding, muted, mocking march hints Polish weakness. The second movement dramatizes with shocking dissonance the apocalyptic disaster of Hitler’s invasion with machine-gun strings, while the third movement agonizes over the brooding melancholy of menacing Russian occupation, concluding with the hope of a neo-folk revival based upon Polish pride. This composition presented a fascinating interweaving of Bartok-like influence and traditional folk tunes as something grounded in the communal past; Lutoslawski endowed old tunes with new harmonies, counterpointing, touches of dissonance, and dynamic orchestration. I’ve heard this piece played before, but with an orchestra of 80, this well-rehearsed performance was dazzling.

After three bows, music director Larry Rachleff led the orchestra in an encore excerpt about masks from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Although the air outside was colder after the concert, it seemed warmer with one’s head full of music.