ISO Classical Series Program No. 12
Hilbert Circle Theatre
Natasha Paremski performed with the ISO this weekend.
She's very attractive: a tall, slender 18-year-old with hands of steel. She's Moscow born but talks like a native Californian. She's Natasha Paremski, perhaps the most sensational young pianist to guest with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in many a moon. Especially considering that she practically re-created and redefined one of the most revered of Romantic-era chestnuts: Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 - or Rach 2, as it's endearingly termed.
The ISO's podium guest for this all-Russian program was Keith Lockhart, principal conductor of the world-famed Boston Pops for the last ten years. Lockhart opened with the Divertimento from Igor Stravinsky's 1928 ballet Le Baiser de la fée (The Fairy's Kiss) - written as an homage to Tchaikovsky. Using the strongly intellectual prowess he had in abundance, Stravinsky (1882-1971) incorporated Tchaikovskian melodies, mostly from lesser known piano pieces, along with some of his own, cast in a Tchaikovskian harmonic and instrumental idiom, and coaxed them with his own rhythmic pulsations into a perfectly integrated fusion of two styles and two composers - a unique work in music history.
In Stravinsky's own recording of the complete Fairy's Kiss from the 1960s, we hear an unrelentingly metronomic rhythmic pulse by an orchestra he had honed to precision and razor sharpness. Such a reading isn't duplicated by anyone else, and Lockhart's was no exception. Yet the pops conductor knew how to approach this clearly lyric, obviously balletic material to recreate the two-composer synergy contained in its melodies, its rhythms and its rich instrumentation. The orchestra responded with excellent balance and as good a precision as we could expect with the available preparation time.
From 1928, we go backwards to 1909 and Stravinsky's career launcher, The Firebird, another ballet from which the composer extracted a suite for concert performance. Lockhart chose the less-often-performed 1945 revision, which incorporates dance numbers not heard in the usually played 1919 suite. Firebird is Stravinsky's last work to show obvious influences of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, while incorporating the fresh, new sounds of his own early style. Much to his chagrin, it became one of his most popular works.
With a slow and ominously dramatic start, Lockhart captured the moody atmosphere of the "Introduction," followed by the gossamer-light "Dance of the Firebird." Two "pantomimes" and a "pas de deux" formed the 1945 additions before the familiar "Round Dance of the Princesses," followed by the explosive "Infernal Dance of King Katschei" - music which leaves behind any traces of Romanticism. A few rough spots appeared in this section, one admittedly difficult to bring off. Lockhart redeemed himself, however, in the "Berceuse" and "Finale," the latter ending on a tumultuous B-major chord, possibly the last big Romantic close Stravinsky allowed himself. Overall, this Firebird Suite deserved, and got, a standing ovation.
But nowhere near as thunderous as what followed Rach 2: Immediately after those final, rat-a-tat-tat C-major chords, the (Friday) patrons en-masse were up on their collective feet, bringing back young Paremski time after time, clamoring for an encore they didn't get.
Their ovation was well deserved. Paremski must have been familiar with Rachmaninoff's own recording of this concerto from 1929 (available on CD), with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. She took many of the same expressive licenses the composer had used, and did so with complete technical authority. Her passage and scale work rolled off her fingers with no sign of insecurity. Plus her chords were big, almost too big in places for that particular Steinway, which has succumbed to pounding under many other "strong" pianists. But most importantly, all her nuances in tempo and dynamics worked; they evoked the authority of the composer behind them. Paremski's playing made this Romantic pot-boiler come alive for me once again.