Symphony shines, pianist plummets

The history of twentieth century classical-tradition music tends to divide composers into two groups: composers that are important and composers that people actually like. While the twain occasionally do meet, especially toward the beginning and the end of the century, there are certain figures who time after time, textbook after textbook, find themselves in the latter category.

The man who might be the standard-bearer for the popular classical composer is Sergei Rachmaninoff, one of the greatest classical pianists of all time and the source of the melodies for a few schmaltzy pop tunes from the 1940s. His recordings sell like hotcakes (as far as classical recordings go) and most people have heard a Rachmaninoff recording, whether they knew it was his or not, at some point in their life. Even if you’ve never been to a concert hall to hear an orchestra or a pianist, you’ve probably heard his tunes in Stop & Shop or some other such outlet for recycled Muzak.

My personal history with Rachmaninoff goes back to the beginning of my interest in classical music, when I found his Third Piano Concerto to be one of the most engaging pieces around. For you movie buffs out there, that’s the “Rach 3” that gained cult status following the release of Shine, featuring David Helfgott’s extremely mediocre recording. More than most music, Rachmaninoff is completely ingrained in my mind, past nostalgia, to something more fundamental.

It was with much excitement, then, that I attended the Berkshire Symphony concert, Thursday evening in Chapin Hall, to hear the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto along with works by Stravinsky and Griffes. Possibly the most famous piano concerto ever written, seeing it performed live is always a thrilling experience that takes me back both to other live performances and to my early years hearing it in recordings. The challenges to the pianist are immense, and seeing his or her journey alone in front of the orchestra changes the way one views the concerto experience.

Did I mention the challenges to the pianist? It is easy to dismiss these after years of hearing near-perfect live performances and edited CD recordings that are inhumanly clean, like the all-computer graphics battle in the new Star Wars movie. One begins to take for granted that anyone who calls himself or herself a pianist is capable of playing some of the most difficult music ever written for the instrument; the measure of their success is not whether they can do it, but how well. It is only when students take the stage that our guard drops, that we open our minds to the possibility of failure, wincing with each mistake for fear that their incompletely-trained minds will not be able to recover. If they do, we applaud them for it, and if they don’t, we accept it as part of the learning process. We take less for granted with students, making the experience somehow more exciting.

Sometimes, though, things don’t go according to plan. Sometimes unexpected events change the course of an evening, such as the legendary story of violinist Midori, who broke the strings on two violins (hers and the concertmaster’s) on her way to finishing a particularly nasty concerto. Nights such as those are powerful and moving, creating a bond between the performer and the audience. And then there are the nights when everything just goes wrong. Unfortunately for pianist Maurizio Barboro, Thursday was one of those nights for him.

The evening began with a pleasant enough opener, “The White Peacock” by Charles T. Griffes, one of the many American composers from the turn of the century who got into “the other” in one way or another. While the piano version of the piece is more subtle and charming, the Symphony produced some really nice colors and gave a good performance of the work.

As if to emphasize the place of the Rachmaninoff concerto in the evening, the giant concert grand piano was left open throughout the opening piece, demanding attention even as it sat silent through the Griffes. When Barboro came out, everything seemed normal, and the opening of the concerto was well-handled and powerful. The string section sounded fantastic, even in cavernous Chapin Hall, when they played the main theme following the piano introduction. My memory of the piece was playing along with the sounds from the stage, and my hands were swaying a little with each phrase.

And then something strange happened at around seven minutes into the first movement. My memory told me what came next, but it wasn’t what the pianist played. It was similar, but not quite the same. And not “not-quite-the-same” in the sense that he hit one wrong note, but rather in the sense that a new melody was added to the pantheon of themes in the concerto. Not a very nice melody, either.

It’s very jarring, as a listener, to have something like that happen to you. Imagine if you were watching a movie that you had seen 50 times – let’s say Raiders of the Lost Ark – and suddenly the scene deviates entirely from what you expect. The guy in the desert market is flipping his swords around, staring down Indy, and instead of shooting him, an elephant runs through and tramples him. You can recover, since the plot is basically the same, but you’ve lost one of your favorite scenes and your confidence that the film will go where you know it should be.

Of course, we’re all only human, and we accept human error. In fact, the concerto form is all about struggle, with the solo player pitted against the mighty orchestra. Rachmaninoff’s concerti highlight that struggle with their technical difficulty, and a memory lapse can even serve to enhance the listener’s experience by reminding them of the difficulty they might otherwise take for granted.

The problem in this case was that the first movement went far better than either of the other two. Apparently, Barboro has not had much experience with memory failure, because it completely derailed his performance. It’s a shocking experience to see a professional performer so dramatically beaten by a piece of music, even one as difficult as the Second Piano Concerto. By the middle of the second movement, it was clear that this was little more than a struggle to the finish line, and I felt palpable tension as he began the treacherous third movement.

My favorite moment in the performance came at the end of the piece, when everyone is supposed to be rejoicing in a final, bombastic presentation of the heartwrenching slow theme. In this context, it seemed nothing more than a cruel mockery of the performance, celebrating the end of this losing battle with the piece that now cried out triumphantly. I wonder how many in the audience recognized this twist; students with whom I spoke after the show were mostly unfamiliar with the piece, but knew that something was awry. Given the number of older audience members, and given that the Second Piano Concerto was an earlier generation’s “Hey Jude,” I would venture that while I might have been alone in appreciating the irony, I was not alone in my surprise at the performance.

The program’s second half consisted of an impressive performance of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” filled with sharp rhythms that were rounded out by Chapin’s absurd architecture and languid sections that filled the space. The ballet is no “The Rite of Spring,” but it is nonetheless an engaging and exciting piece that received one of the better performances I’ve heard from the Berkshire Symphony in recent memory.