Trifonov ‘terrifically exciting’ in guest spot with CSO, Zur; Zemach receives dignified send-off

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John Chacona | Guest Reviewer

It was a night for beginnings and endings in the Amphitheater on Tuesday. This being the final Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra concert of the season, Institution President Tom Becker was on hand to offer his thanks to the players and also the players’ gratitude to the audience. He drolly introduced himself as “Marty Merkley’s yes man,” which got a nice laugh.

Merkley had a good night, mounting a valedictory program that included two Chautauqua debuts: of the young Israeli conductor Noam Zur (making his North American debut); and of Daniil Trifonov, a pianist whose appearance was a consequence of winning the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition.

As luck would have it, Trifonov soon after took the gold medal at the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Piano competitions are as common as political ads these days, and they tend to run together, but a list of the past winners of the quadrennial Tchaikovsky may put Trifonov’s achievement into perspective: Van Cliburn, Vladimir Ashkenazy, John Ogdon, Mikhail Pletnev and Boris Berezovsky, among others. So Merkley bagged himself a potential future superstar.

Trifonov has all the tools: big technique, a singing tone, charisma (he had the fine features and brooding intensity of Johnny Depp’s boy-antihero film characters), and a real artistic personality. Let’s call it operatic fervor; Trifonov’s conception of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was a young man’s music (it was written when Chopin was Trifonov’s age), and even in the central Larghetto (and especially there), he lunged after his arioso-like phrases like a soprano in a tragic role from Bellini.

There was little that was calculated about the approach; his playing had an almost improvisational freedom and impetuousness that was terrifically exciting. Rubenstein boasted of playing that way early in his career, and if Trifonov doesn’t yet have the Polish master’s refinement and elegance, give him time. He’s only 21.

Zur doesn’t appear to be much older himself (he looks a bit like a jolly, bespectacled Seth Rogen, post-diet version), and he led with great vitality. Zur seemed delighted to take the stage, and though the words he mouthed when he turned to conduct the audience in the traditional “Star Spangled Banner” didn’t appear to be Francis Scott Key’s, no one cared. High spirits were in the house.

They are practically written into Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Die Fledermaus” Overture, a pastiche of the big tunes from the Viennese master’s fizzy operetta. Maintaining a sense of structure can be a problem in the piece, and with his great plasticity of tempo, Zur was going for the moment. The orchestra wasn’t always in lockstep with him, but what the performance lacked in unanimity, it made up for in generosity of spirit.

The iconic Ravel arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” wasn’t ideally played either (it’s been a busy week at the end of a long season), but there were startling moments in Zur’s conception of this thrice-familiar music.

The former trombonist from Tel Aviv got predictably fine brass playing, by and large, and brought out an unexpectedly clangorous Messiaenic sound in the “Limoges” miniature (a nice touch; Zur was an selected by Messiaen’s star pupil, Pierre Boulez, to be an assistant at the 2006 Lucerne Festival). His Baba Yaga was weird and menacing, and the chicks in their shells fluttered excitedly in Zur’s pictorial reading.

The grand, concluding “Great Gate of Kiev” movement is a bombast magnet, but Zur dropped the volume a bit to start. It was a shrewd choice, allowing us to view the wonder as if from a distance, with the dynamics — and the awe — increasing with every measure. It was a majestic coda to the season, made all the more touching by the sight of Chaim Zemach blinking away tears as he read his part. With the performance, Zemach, who, before the evening’s downbeat, was busily tapping a message on his smartphone, brought down the curtain on a 45-year career leading the CSO’s cellos. It wasn’t hard to imagine this dignified and celebratory music as a tribute.

John Chacona is a freelance writer for the Erie-Times News.

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