January 25, 2014 (Review of "Beethoven, Strauss, Liszt")
Symphony Silicon Valley and Nobilis Trio
Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
Symphony Silicon Valley's exciting Saturday program began
without the orchestra. That's right. The Nobilis Piano Trio -- three
musicians, alone -- played an arrangement of themes by Tchaikovsky. It
was elegant and heartfelt. It instantly gripped the audience. It
established a benchmark for this varied and imaginative program at the
Nobilis performed a work by its pianist Stephen Prutsman: his Paraphrase on Themes from Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin." It swings between the Russian's arching operatic melodies and his brisk dances; an artful alternation of high romance and plain tension. Prutsman, who lives in San Francisco, is a commanding player, and so are his two colleagues: violinist Ruggero Allifranchini (who is associate concertmaster of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, where Prutsman once was an artistic director) and cellist Suren Bagratuni, a widely-traveled soloist.
The easy and fiery exchanges among these three musicians carried into the program's next piece: Beethoven's Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano in C major: the "Triple Concerto." Perhaps because Guillermo Figueroa, the program's guest conductor, is himself an accomplished violinist, this performance of the Triple had a special chamber-like intimacy and flow. Textures were transparent, tempos flexible. The concerto is a complex construction -- meshing the trio, as "soloist," with the orchestra proper -- but the piece breathed here, so naturally.
Figueroa divided the strings in the old way: first violins on the left, seconds on the right; cellos and violas in the middle; basses over on the left. Perhaps this also contributed to the performance's many strengths: for instance, the warmth and clarity of the strings in the Allegro, arriving in waves and later building like a storm, in that quintessential Beethovenian way.
There were many highlights within the trio, including Prutsman's pearly tone and his innate sense for varying dynamics in a simple phrase. Looking nothing but relaxed, the pianist delivered with sheer authority, consistently. Allifranchini displayed his own quicksilver technique and a singing, sturdy-sweet sound. Bagratuni drew a deep golden tone from the cello; superb. His keening entrance in the Largo was another high point, though he seemed to suffer some finger fatigue midway through the finale. (His part is a notoriously difficult one.)
In any event, this was a dashing and emotional performance of the Triple; memorable.
But this concert was only at its midpoint.
After intermission, Prutsman returned, this time as soloist for Richard Strauss's Berleske in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, a single-movement concerto, essentially. It is rarely played, possibly because the solo part is so absurdly difficult -- a roller-coaster, muscular, glitzy and glamorous, tender and dolorous. He played it from memory, brilliantly.
The piece is strange and fascinating and ought to be performed more often. Dating to 1885, it's a kind of precursor to Ravel's "La Valse," from 1920, in that it feels like a fever dream announcing the end of an era: elegant and waltzing, yet world-weary and sad, conveying a sense of decay, of decadence.
It begins with a motto for timpani, a theme that gets developed throughout the piece, which keeps subsiding into unusual conversations: between timpani and piano, say, or between timpani, piano and winds. Rhythmically treacherous, the score is a real workout; Saturday, the orchestra pulled it off with gusto. Hats off to Figueroa and all the players, and especially to timpanist Robert J. Erlebach Jr.
The concert could have, and maybe should have, ended there, at this exhilarating (and exhausting) high point. But the orchestra had yet to play a work entirely on its own, and Figueroa now led it through Liszt's symphonic tone poem "Les Preludes." The conductor brought due emphasis to the work's forest themes (those horns) and mythic ascents, but he wasn't afraid to create a plain old pretty sound, either. Sonically rich, earthy and passionate, the orchestra's performance was a pleasure.