Bianconi Soars; Overture Hall Roars

MSO players get their wish—and audience approves that, too

It was one of those nights at Overture Hall on Friday. John DeMain returned from his recent forays into Turandot with Virginia Opera (a reliable source indicated the reviews were off the charts), and we had another return that was as welcome.

There’s some sort of saying about “too much of a good thing,” but I’m ready to throw that out the window when it comes to the appearances of Philippe Bianconi (pictured above, courtesy of MSO). This titan of the keyboard is marking his sixth collaboration with the Madison Symphony—and if he was scheduled to appear again next season (he’s not, although he’s been here in 2001, 2002, 2010, 2012 and 2013), I would already have my calendar marked for another “can’t miss” event.

It doesn’t hurt that he comes armed to do battle with some of my personal favorites (last time it was Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2). The first time I was fortunate enough to hear him in person was his 2010 performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Undoubtedly I wasn’t the only Rachmaninoff lover in the audience that night that wistfully hoped for his return in one of the great Rachmaninoff concertos.

Some wishes come true, as Bianconi is giving an object lesson this weekend in how to tame a formidable technical work into an unforgettable display of virtuosity placed in the service of surpassing artistry. The Piano Concerto No. 3 of Rachmaninoff, 108 years after its premiere, is still considered the most daunting challenge of the standard piano concerto repertoire. Indeed, not all the great names of the last fifty years feel comfortable in trotting it out; much “easier” to get one’s standing ovation with Tchaikovsky, or Beethoven.

But there is one additional element that sets Bianconi’s collaborations with DeMain and the MSO apart, a sense of simpatico in their vision of a work and the importance of so many details that can be overlooked. No, I’m not forgetting that just last year we had Emmanuel Ax and Garrick Ohlsson (and both of them have had multiple appearances here); the point is that Bianconi is not quite the household name they are…but should be.

It took all of about a minute of the first movement for DeMain to demonstrate how sensitively he would shape his responsive players and for Bianconi to turn a Steinway into a singing instrument. He had plenty of opportunity of course to unleash tidal waves of sound (remarkably clean, save for maybe a passing smudge or two in the titanic cadenza).

The second movement gave the orchestra a chance to shape yet another melts-in-your-ears tune from the Russian composer, then Bianconi amply demonstrated the considerable feat of making the piano seem as expressive as a full orchestra. In the contrasting quicksilver section, Bianconi’s fingers danced at blinding speed. The finale was a complete tour de force for all concerned. No surprise then that the full house responded with as quick a standing ovation, and repeated cries of “bravo” from all parts of the house, that I can remember witnessing there in the last seven seasons.

When the encore eventually came, Bianconi adopted a welcome approach of many recent soloists: Having conquered every technical summit in the concerto, he gave us the shaded whispers of Debussy. One of his recent recordings is of the Debussy Preludes, a disc that received a “Recording of the Year” nomination. The choice was “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.” It deserved all the uproar lavished upon the Rachmaninoff, but it was hard to break the spell with any applause at all (of course it finally came, and in waves). But Bianconi can be faulted in one trait that he shares with too many of his colleagues: He didn’t announce the encore from the stage. If he had selected most any other Debussy prelude, I wouldn’t have known. Please, virtuosi of the world unite: tell us what you’re about to play!

It is unusual to have the concerto soloist on the second half of the program, and a cynic would say it was done to make sure that there were filled seats for a real rarity, the Concerto for Orchestra of Lutoslawski. Even for any audience member that had done their homework to learn that this was an early work of the Polish icon of post-modern music, the draw would still have been Bianconi/Rachmaninoff.

But it was intriguing to learn some time ago that a number of the MSO players had lobbied their maestro repeatedly to program this engaging piece. My own personal experience with Lutoslawski lay on the other end of his creative spectrum. He came to Los Angeles just a year or so before he died in 1994, for the world premiere of his Symphony No. 4 with the L.A. Philharmonic. Everything about the activities was draped in “importance,” and yes, I was excited to meet him, ask him a few questions, and be among the very first to hear a major work by a major composer of my lifetime.

Other than the importance of it all, I don’t remember much about the music. So I was all the more looking forward to a piece that drew in part on Lutoslawski’s Polish roots. In three movements of about a half hour, we get plenty of interesting sounds, and the sections of the orchestra are certainly all kept very busy. Unlike Bartok’s most famous example of this oxymoronically titled work—after all, “concerto” implies a soloist (or multiples) outside the ensemble—individual instruments were not given as much spotlight time as I expected. There were passages that arrested the ear immediately, with differing timbres slipping in and out of melodic and harmonic lines. Here and there the 1954 piece showed influences of Stravinsky, Bartok and even Shostakovich, but it never seemed derivative or unoriginal. So the players got their wish—and the audience seemed to like it pretty well, too.

The evening opened with Schumann’s overture to Manfred, an opportunity for DeMain to quickly re-establish the beauty of his orchestra’s strings, and the sense of sweep that comes from the heart of Romanticism, which is where this orchestra always sounds its best.

Performances remain Saturday night and Sunday afternoon—and don’t forget the final set of concerts on May 5, 6 and 7. The featured work is Brahms’ A German Requiem, a masterpiece that DeMain has been looking to conduct for a long time. Given the recent state of world events and uncertainty, it is a message of comfort and hope we might all need a dose of.

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