Piano virtuoso fills in for Horacio Gutiérrez Friday and delivers dramatic performance
Big name can’t do show. Newcomer fills in. Star is born.
A showbiz cliché became reality Friday evening when pianist Arnaldo Cohen replaced the scheduled headliner at Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall, Horacio Gutiérrez, and was enthusiastically showered with tumultuous applause.
That trope, however, needs qualification. Cohen is no newbie; he’s had a distinguished career for over four decades. But it was his debut with the San Diego Symphony, and for the majority of the audience, likely the first time they’d heard this infrequently-recorded virtuoso.
Cohen is a throwback to earlier times when pianists took liberties with composers’ scores and intuition trumped analysis. He’s best known for his free-spirited interpretations of Liszt, but in the moody Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms, Cohen found an equally suitable vehicle for his poetic musings.
Hunched over keyboard, with a striking economy of movement, Cohen startlingly produced fiery octaves, grandiose chords, and tenderly dreamy pianissimo lines, all with rhythmic elasticity.
In the slow movement, Cohen’s touch was beautifully quiet, a liquid tone that seemed to have no percussive attack. Conductor Jahja Ling responded with a more unusually hushed sound than he typically obtains from the orchestra. The principal winds and horn all contributed sensitive, lyrical solo work here.
Gutiérrez’s replacement Saturday was, if not as dramatic, no less intriguing. Pianist-composer Conrad Tao is scarcely older than the 20 year-old Mozart who wrote a concerto for three pianos. Rarely presented in its original, impractical form these days, the Lodron Concerto K. 242 showcased the keyboard skills of Tao, Ling, and Jessie Chang (Ling’s wife).
In contrast to the brooding melancholy of Brahms, Mozart’s triple concerto sparkles with charm and wit. Tao and Chang were well-matched musicians, whether crisply elegant or bright and flashy. Ling’s part, originally composed for the weakest link of the Lodron family, was performed with no less care or grace than his two partners, and allowed him to preside over the orchestra from his piano bench.
After intermission, Tao was able to show off, taking the top part in Brahms’ “Hungarian Dances No. 5 and 6” for piano, 4 hands. Tao impishly exaggerated the contrasts in tempo and volume of Brahms’ score, ably abetted by Ling in the lower part.
Ling and Chang skillfully played two “Slavonic Dances” for piano, 4 hands, by Dvořák. Spreading out to two pianos, the couple less successfully tackled an overwrought arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Three Preludes.” The expansion to two pianos does little for the original piano version, adding excess where none is required.
Although the audience seemed pleased by the duo’s performance here, to this listener it suffered an all-too-common ailment in Gershwin performances by classical musicians: conservatory-itis. By applying rubato and heavy pedaling to Gershwin’s music, it is sapped of its rhythmic vigor and genre-crossing insouciance. What should be a bucking jazz bronco is transmogrified into a pretty gelding munching oats in a pasture corner.
On Friday’s concert, Ling and the orchestra turned out an adequate but comfy performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6. Despite exemplary solo work from the winds in Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite,” the work never really lifted off.
The most revealing non-concerto work over the two evenings was in Henri Büsser’s orchestration of Debussy’s early but delightful piano work, “Petite Suite.” Here Ling and the musicians best found textural detailing, musical continuity, and dramatic pacing.
Hertzog is a freelance writer.
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