Guest Review by: Anthony Bannon
We could have been on dangerous ground, the way they looked, always checking with each other, furtively, quick glances, as if fulfilling a special scheme to perform this concerto, itself a bit of a mystery — create it as it hadn’t quite been heard before during its century-long presence.
Yes, I think they were up to something: Rossen Milanov, music director of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, repeatedly looking over his shoulder to take measure with the young Ukrainian phenom Antonii Baryshevskyi at the piano, front stage. They were taking nothing for granted, keeping track of one another. Their work was turning fresh ground, negotiating a new path.
Sergei Prokofiev, Ukrainian proto-Modernist, wrote his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1913, lost it in a fire during the Bolshevik Revolution, and remade it from memory and notes in 1923, 10 years later, when the world had changed. That was the work for Milanov and Baryshevskyi Thursday evening.
Baryshevskyi, a rough shave with rough black hair, black shirt, black pants, no jacket, tends to this music knowing that Prokofiev suffered the threats of government and upheaval — as he must, too, from the window and at the door in the National Music Academy of Ukraine in Kiev. These are matters of death that there might be music and life, and the pianist seems to recognize his instrument as an angel would know a harp or as the fighter is familiar with percussion.
Baryshevskyi told Daily writer Morgan Kinney that the artist should consider more than form and materials; the artist should seek meaning — what a work might signify, taken whole. And indeed, Prokofiev made a note to instruct the future to pay attention to the narrative embedded in the score, and Baryshevskyi in his Daily interview pointed to the concerto’s dedication — to a friend of the composer who died by suicide.
Through his music, Prokofiev wrote for life as for death, for the known as for the unknown. Might the performance heard most splendidly in the Amphitheater Thursday evening have searched out that added value of art — the hard scramble, tough love of life and then its death, sometimes sudden? Such an aspiration is worthy of staying in eyeshot with his soloist, Maestro Milanov might say.
The concerto begins, as if a life story, with childlike lightness in the solo piano. The piece becomes more brisk, and then more mature — even elegant — at the introduction of a second theme. It is simple phrasing, with embellishments, that leads to a huge solo passage, a written cadenza, which ups the ante to the higher ground of virtuosity, even impetuosity.
Prokofiev also offered an instruction rare in musical scores: “Colossale,” he wrote, suggesting an immensity of thought and expression. Baryshevskyi delivers, hunched over the keyboard, as if drawing inspiration through his gut, while at other times, straight backed and tall. One hand holds the unfolding drama, deep rumblings, and the other hand answers. It is as if the artist is talking to himself, a maddening dialogue, harsh sometimes, but infectious for the one who eavesdrops, listening in.
The orchestra may interrupt, offer a comment or two, but the piano gives nothing up. In fact, the second movement is a piano engine of toccata 16th notes, an octave apart, driving toward an intermezzo, sated with portent, pounded out by the orchestra in league with the piano, which, on rare occasion, offers an ironic solo note, relieving the burden — if only for a moment.
What drama! From augers of death to lyric gentility — anger that cuts like a blade, notes clipped, sharpened to knife under the skin, an invasive music, relentless into the fourth movement, like broken glass and, if reflecting death, alien to the living.
And then, a march. Next, a quiet, soft hush in the woodwinds, the piano offering comment, so private, as if overheard, from outside the window: Though it is a false peace, an echo of the beginning. Dread is approaching through an extended phrase from the strings, and a passion become a madness, as if a soft walk, back and forth, turns threatening, errant like hot flashes, anchored in a return to the opening theme and another grand cadenza as a finale.
Truly, it was a rare half an hour, transporting, as much an exponent of the sublime, with its extraordinary heights and fearful depths, as it was a token of the challenges of a modern world.
There was an awful lot said in this impacted time, but those in the Amp knew they had experienced something truly uncommon, singular. Milanov had made a careful balance between his orchestra and a remarkable artist whose gift was his understanding of the composer’s depth of meaning.
And there was more.
Milanov saw to it that the evening itself was an occasion for mind as much as it was expressive of talents. The CSO is playing at such a level that these things are now possible, where one can expect musical skills capable of lofty ideas.
The work of Anna Clyne, British-born in 1980, New York-bred, opened the evening. She loves mixing media, and did so this time through memory, with her popular composition “Masquerade.” No dancers or projections on stage, but like radio, a prompt for imagination, as if the five-minute opener were an accompaniment for such a theatrical pretense.
Aptly, “Masquerade” begins with a call to order from a gong and a full orchestral utterance, quieting into glistening strings — a kind of indeterminacy from which something known could emerge, a vessel of melody fit out to hold the knowable before slipping back into another nebula of glistening raw sound, awaiting composure.
What a delight — a brief essay on creative activity: the visitation to the thought region of unformed sound that withholds the surprise, offers up the muse, from which the artist might bring the medium’s raw materials into the submission of form, whatever it might be. Even a cute jingle raises toward the end of “Masquerade,” before. The little piece closes with an explosive finale, an echo of the gong of the beginning.
On the other side of the program, its finale was the finale among the giants of finales: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, C Minor, Op. 17. From the CSO’s soft opening horn and bassoon call to a melody of Ukrainian folk music, the work leads toward a long finale that occupies most of fourth movement.
Milanov often embraced the orchestra in sweeping gestures, encouraging the waves of language, dialogues among the sections — strings to winds to horns — a beautiful sight to auger their sound, at some points rendered with the delicacy of fingerspelling, as with the Rochester Method of American Sign Language.
Always in waiting was Tchaikovsky’s powerful signature moments of full and vivacious allegro domination — briefly toward the end of the first movement, and with the nimble footwork of the third movement, as the lithe conductor now used the full space of his podium to summon a big and complex enterprise. And then to the dynamics of a slash and burn finale, built up only to fall back to a quiet tune, build again, fall back, build and finally a gong to signal the end, just to have it give way to a coda, and the truly final end.
An exhausted audience, nicely toward full, showed gratitude with enthusiastic and extended sounds of their own. The Dog, parenthetically, who visits every concert, made only a single appearance, this evening with jingling collar and a single bark during a quiet moment of the Prokofiev first movement.
Anthony Bannon is the executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, where he also serves as research professor at SUNY Buffalo State. He also was an arts critic at The Buffalo News and director of George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.