The three pieces selected for last weekend’s Orlando Philharmonic concerts perfectly captured the spirit of the ‘Russian Romance’ theme. Featuring the incredible talents of 18 year-old double soloist Sarina Zhang and a strong orchestra led by Christopher Wilkins, the performance was multifaceted and reverent of the Russian tradition.
Zhang sat on a platform for the opening Rococo Variations by Tchaikovsky. Wilkins’ reading throughout was calm and composed, gently ushering in orchestral groupings as the variations progressed. Zhang stated the main theme after a brief orchestral introduction, displaying a cool command of the instrument.
After the Rococo theme is presented and its harmonic contours well established, reciprocation between soloist and orchestra follow. As the piece progresses, tempos change and pose challenges to both soloist and orchestral accompaniment. Delicate performances by the orchestra supported the soloist well. The woodwinds were excellent, notably Principal Flute Colleen Blagov.
Zhang was most impressive when in the upper register, scurrying up the fingerboard and controlling pitch well with skillful placement of her left thumb. The showy downward glissandos around the middle of the piece were as fun to watch as they seemed for Zhang to play. Her sense of vibrato felt natural, not too much nor too little, although her bowing in the rapid closing section was a little harsh.
Although the Rach 3 was dropped from the program, the highlight of the concert turned out to be the famous Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2, played in its stead. The opening swell on solo piano introduces the character of the piece, dwelling on a dark, low F and increasing tension until the strings make an entrance with the somber theme in C minor. The episode was chilling, marked by a good balance of the orchestra, although the middle register of the piano became a little cloudy under the full orchestra in the louder parts of the first and third movements.
Principal Horn Mark Fischer got the spotlight toward the end of the first movement, with a brief, yet haunting solo. The final statement of the C minor theme, with Zhang’s desperate upper-register counter-melodies, was nothing short of fantastic.
The slow second movement was a reflective breather, particularly well-balanced and executed by orchestra and soloist alike. Delicate arpeggios introduce the tonality behind the main melody – non-classical listeners will recognize is as the verses of Eric Carmen’s cheesy ballad ‘All by Myself’ – which was beautifully sung by Patrick Graham* on the clarinet. The piano takes the melody, with support from bassoons undulating underneath, and goes on to explore new tonalities. The finale featured a great brass section – it is later offset by a sweeping and cinematic counter-theme that returns majestically – and unrestrained keyboard runs by Zhang, closing a brilliant display of piano wizardry.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, op. 45, is a harder pill to swallow, but can be immensely satisfying with the benefit of repeated listenings before a live performance. The composer’s swan song, it encompasses many styles and orchestral maneuvers that characterize his output. Wilkins, conducting from memory, did a fantastic job in managing tempo and coordinating interplay, in order for the large orchestra – it calls for extended percussion and woodwinds outside of standard orchestration – not to get muddy along the way.
The result was a poised presentation of the composer’s taste for orchestration; several sections feature melodies that start with one instrument and smoothly blend into another of the same family, such as English horn to oboe. The percussion was exciting and assertive, including triangle, tambourine, bass drum, glockenspiel and tubular bells, among others.
Wilkins was more emphatic during this piece, although he didn’t seem to rush things; episodes felt as if they were unfolding at a natural pace, dictate by the character of the music rather than by a predetermined speed for the beat. The piece is also highlighted by guest instruments; it was exciting to hear an alto sax, a bass clarinet and a contrabassoon in the Orlando Phil. The gorgeous melody for alto sax is later echoed by the strings, in the first movement, a well-achieved section.
The plodding second movement is a bit monotonous, although its menacing triple-time rhythm has an intriguing quality. The finale progresses through a variety of tempos and characters, culminating rambunctiously with gong splashes and timpani bangs. The music stopped, the audience left their seats for intermission. The Russian Romance was heard in Orlando.
* Correction: This review originally acknowledged Nikolay Blagov, instead of Patrick Graham, in the performance of the Rach 2.
To visit the Orlando Philharmonic's website and learn about upcoming performances, click here.
To read reviews of previous Orlando Phil performances, click here.
To watch a full performance of Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, click here.
To watch a full performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2, click here.
To watch a full performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, op. 45, click here.