Left-hand piano piece grips audience

Concert review

April 06, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Richard Danielpour is one of the busiest - and most popular - composers on the classical scene today. His Piano Concerto No. 3 (Zodiac Variations), receiving its world premiere this week in Washington, helps explain why. It's a big, romantic, deftly constructed score, as easy on the ears as on the brain. It has "public approval guaranteed" practically stamped on the title page.

Sure enough, the crowd in the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall on Thursday night responded warmly to the new work, written specifically for eminent pianist Gary Graffman, who has been confined to music for left hand alone since an injury to his right in 1979. With the National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Leonard Slatkin providing vibrant support for the soloist, the concerto was certainly heard in a most flattering light.

But for all of its technical facility and moments of potent expression, the music has an amorphous quality. There just isn't enough solid matter there.

What the 30-minute concerto does have going for it is clarity of structure. The age-old form of theme and variations is ably employed, providing a steady flow. The theme that drives the variations has a moody, intriguing character, and it gets colorful workouts as both keyboard and orchestra explore implications of its melody and harmony.

(That theme came to the composer during a meal at a Paris restaurant; a draft of the whole work was finished less than two weeks later. Such productivity has kept Danielpour premieres flowing steadily in recent years, though it begs the question of whether he's being a little too productive for his own good.)

Each of the concerto's 12 variations is tagged with a sign of the zodiac, though there doesn't seem any great significance in the extra-musical connections. A reference to Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in the ninth variation and a chorale tune that launches the final variation sound forced, rather than a natural outgrowth of the initial material.

At the very end of the work, Danielpour seems to have that earlier Rachmaninoff piece on his mind again, aiming for a similarly unexpected twist. But where Rachmaninoff's witty deflation of energy makes a brilliant effect, Danielpour's ending just sounds like a petering out of ideas.

As for the piano writing: Danielpour expertly exploits the possibilities of left-hand playing. There are lots of bravura passages that suggest two hands at the keys, while there are also many opportunities, especially in the sixth and most memorable variation (Leo), for lyrical phrasing. But two brief passages requiring the pianist to reach inside the instrument and manipulate the strings seem purely for show.

Graffman made the most of his new assignment. His fearless, ever-expressive playing was firmly complemented by Slatkin and the NSO.

Framing the concerto were two sterling examples of Czech music, one light, one heavy.

Slatkin unleashed the full flavor and genius of Smetana's breathless Overture to The Bartered Bride. The orchestra was in splendid form, the strings superbly nimble and confident, the winds bright and smooth.

The conductor likewise tapped the range of sonics and emotions in Janacek's Glagolitic Mass. It's one of the richest examples of 20th century choral music, with distinctive verbal coloring (the ancient Latin Mass is sung in an old Slavonic language), bracing instrumentation and often raw harmonies. Piety is incidental; this is as close to a humanistic Mass as possible.

Slatkin maintained a taut grip on the music, generating considerable tension and also unleashing Janacek's earthy expressions of faith and devotion.

Norman Scribner's Choral Arts Society of Washington sang with technical polish and incisive phrasing. Potent work came from the solo quartet, particularly soprano Christine Brewer and tenor Graham Clark (coping bravely with no end of high notes). A few blurry bits aside, the NSO continued to excel. Organist William Neil was one more solid link in an arresting performance.

NSO

Where: Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington

When: 8:30 tonight

Tickets: $39.50 to $69

Call: 202-467-4600, 800-444-1324

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