Piano Concerto always makes a scene. The orchestra and the pianist both give all of what they have to each other in the arena — they cooperate, speak and challenge each other. The audience can take advantage of getting the best of the two protagonists that own equal partnership between each other, enjoying the exciting feast of the two hard players in the game.
Acclaimed pianist Olga Kern returns to perform American composer Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, Op. 38, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra as their fourth collaboration from Oct. 20-22.
Banging chords on the piano broke the silence in the Overture Hall, beginning the Barber Concerto Friday evening. The steel sounds Kern made on the keyboard outline her strengths as a competitive collaborator.
The first movement was full of dark humor and dramatic events; dissonant harmonies created unease in the ears. The bizarre, fantastical clown-like music was filled with chasing and following between different instruments, and the orchestra and pianist took turns imitating each other. Fast-paced section changes showed the rich energy and restlessness in the music.
The music became more lyrical as more melodies showed up in the second movement, which was less intense but still turbulent. The third movement began with dissonant roaring in the orchestra, pushing the music to a climax after a relatively calm movement. Barber used unusual orchestral combinations, like putting the xylophone with the oboe or clarinet or partnering the piano with the trombone. It seemed like a mess — but maybe that was Barber’s intention. As an audience member, though, it was fun to watch.
Overall, Kern interpreted American-style exaggeration and craziness with her spectacular technique as a pianist and her unique musicality as a performer. Nevertheless, while the pianist and the orchestra were busy challenging each other, the balance was not always perfect. When the texture of the orchestra became thick from time to time, the piano voice got drowned out. The Barber Concerto, full of dissonant harmonies, confidently and humorously ended all of the nonsense with a loud hysteria of sounds.
After the collaboration, Kern performed Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Moments Musicaux (Moment Musical),” Op. 16 No. 4 in D minor as an encore. Her selection invokes some nostalgia and emotional attachment. Three years ago, Olga Kern performed Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 1 with Madison Symphony Orchestra in Overture Hall. She also won the first Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition at the age of 17. Perhaps the encore solo piece was her personal statement as a special soloist after the audience had seen the competitive side of her in the concerto.
The musical pulse surging in the Rachmaninoff piece demonstrated her untamed charisma as a solo pianist. Without the obligation or limitation of working with the orchestra, the rubato in her solo Rachmaninoff was even more vivid. Her unique aura was well-illustrated; Kern enjoyed more liberty when she played the role of a solo performer — not that she was bad at working with others, but that evening she proved she has mastered both roles.
While music closer to our era — represented by the Barber Concerto — is absurd and grotesque, music in late 19th to early 20th century is full of beauties in graceful melodies and romantic harmonies. Preceding the Barber Concerto, the Madison Symphony Orchestra performed Maurice Ravel’s “Ma mère l'Oye (Mother Goose Suite),” a set of orchestral pieces for ballet. Fairytale stories with plots would be a more accurate description than “pieces” for the set. As a composer, Ravel sophisticatedly took use of all factors, including melody, orchestration, dynamics and harmony to fully show the listeners the visual images in Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast and other fairytales. Through music — a form of aural communication— Ravel mastered how to play with the angst of the audience, making them anticipate the climax when he played with the rich crescendo to push the plots. The Mother Goose Suite is a relaxing set to listen to for the general audience, as if it is the background music of Disney princess movies.
Conducted by John DeMain, the Madison Symphony Orchestra helped retell Ravel’s drama well, mastering the notes and passages. Although the volume was exquisitely well-controlled for the piano and pianissimo in the score, the fear of not being soft enough made the music sound cautious. The childlike ease and ingenuousness were buried by the sophistication in the performance. Nevertheless, the musicality and drama were communicated well.
The ending piece was Dvo?ák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” a famous piece with well-known melodies to the general audience’s ears. Composed while Dvo?ák was in the new world, “New World Symphony” told stories of America through the eyes of Dvo?ák, who is from Czechoslovakia. The warm melodies and harmonies in the second movement conveyed homesickness but made the listeners forget about the melancholies of missing home. All the instruments in the Madison Symphony Orchestra worked together not only to “sing” the melodies, but also to go through the ups and downs in texture changes in the orchestration, like the back and forth between growing attachment to a new place while loving one’s homeland.
In the fourth movement, Dvo?ák brought back almost all of the melodies that had occurred in the previous movements and made creative variations on the themes. The audience heard the same old materials over and over but never got bored of the beautiful and haunting melodies. Newness comes out from the classics; I was not, and will never, be bored by Dvo?ák’s use of rests, various accompanying materials, different layers of orchestration and sound texture in different instrument carrying out the theme. Symphony No. 9 is popular for its own beauty, though it sometimes takes the attention away from other great works by Dvo?ák. The Madison Symphony Orchestra made good use of that popularity and did a great job in communicating all musicality in the piece to the audience.
There have been so many innovations that, as time passes by, ground-breaking music eventually becomes classics. There will be more music written, and there will be more performances, but in every present moment on stage, performers all come together to celebrate the legacies that have marked history.