Last night's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Celebrity Concert was one of the most sparsely attended in memory. Perhaps the thought of enduring yet another routine performance of Tchaikovsky's warhorse First Piano Concerto discouraged music lovers from venturing into the cold.
But Russian pianist Alexander Toradze is not given to routine, and he demonstrated that there is always something new to say about a great piece of music.
This is not to suggest that Mr. Toradze's performance was flawless or even approached the ideal. He attacks the piano with an almost savage ferocity, and the resulting tone can be harsh and explosive. The famous opening chords were overwhelming for all the wrong reasons.
Still, Mr. Toradze possesses a prodigious technique that allows him to negotiate at seemingly impossible speeds a work that Russian pianist Nicholas Rubinstein once deemed "unplayable." His frequent and mercurial changes of tempo created a mood of improvisation, quite a feat for a familiar work like the Tchaikovsky.
This approach certainly challenged the BSO and its resident conductor, Christopher Seaman, but the collaboration was for the most part well-synchronized, particularly given Mr. Toradze's delightful eccentricities. And, in truth, Mr. Seaman seemed to relish every moment.
Most impressive was Mr. Toradze's obvious love and enthusiasm for the piece. Every phrase received the artist's total devotion. While his approach was certainly unorthodox, it harked back to a time when musicians were not afraid to imprint their own thoughts and personalities onto the music at hand.
Performances like Mr. Toradze's are increasingly valuable and deserve to be heard by the widest audience.
In honor of Black History Month, the concert began with the BSO premiere of excerpts from African-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's (1875-1912) "Hiawatha."
The music is almost arch-conservative in terms of harmonics and orchestration, which may explain the work's early acclaim and ultimate obscurity. Still, there is much that is attractive, and Mr. Seaman and the orchestra applied their utmost care to the task at hand.
The evening concluded with British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams' musical homage to his beloved city, "London Symphony."
Performances continue tonight, tomorrow and Saturday.