Review: Gutiérrez, Milanov dazzle Chautauqua audience

Guest review by Johanna Keller

On Thursday evening, Cuban-born pianist Horacio Gutiérrez, along with conductor Rossen Milanov leading the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, demonstrated the power of the pianissimo in a sparkling and propulsive rendering of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58.

Those familiar opening chords played by the solo piano were answered by the orchestra’s whisper; and the graceful descent of the first movement’s cadenza was caught up by the barest murmur from the orchestra. Given that dynamics are one of the most basic elements of musical interpretation, a true pianissimo is surprisingly rare. This is an effect that depends on more than mere amplitude; rather, it is achieved by a subtle hesitation without a sag in tempo, creating a suspended, anticipatory hush that brings the listener to the edge of the seat. It’s like a whisper one leans in to overhear, and it takes a great deal of technical control — of the keyboard and of the orchestra — which Gutiérrez and Milanov both have in abundance.

Not that this was a quiet performance — far from it. The soft passages set up an energized release as Milanov pulled thunderous chords from the lower strings in the second movement Andante and plucked out crisp utterances in the concluding Rondo, with those witty, stuttering, syncopated asides. In this concerto, the last one Beethoven was able to perform himself at the keyboard because of his encroaching deafness, the composer not only toyed with the form harmonically and structurally (as he always did), but was also experimenting with a new piano of the time that had additional treble notes as well as pedals that gave greater control of dynamics and color.

Performing on a modern Steinway, on a technical level, Gutiérrez gave a stunning performance, his extended trills and triple-trills shimmering like the lake on a sunny day. He can turn a manuscript page dark with thickets of 32nd notes into a gauzy transparence that brings to mind the legendary Walter Gieseking.

After Gutiérrez burst on the scene in 1970, he was hailed for dynamic and fleet-fingered renditions of the big Romantics — Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. Over the years, unlike some pianists who had an early success and then stopped growing (the late Van Cliburn comes to mind), Gutiérrez has continued to challenge himself intellectually, most notably championing music by George Perle. Gutiérrez has matured into a truly great pianist, one with a mastery of architecture, whose long-lauded technical prowess serves a penetrating musical intelligence.

For all that, however, the evening rightly belonged to Milanov, coming into the home stretch in his first season as Chautauqua’s music director. The apotheosis of the concert was the concluding work, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100.

As conductor Grant Cooper said in his pre-concert lecture at Hurlbut Church, this symphony “reminds us that great art can be created even though the limits placed on the artist are quite severe,” and indeed the privations experienced by Prokofiev and his fellow Muscovites must hover around our understanding of this extraordinary work.

The symphony had its premiere in January 1945, in the closing months of World War II when the Red Army juggernaut was marching across Germany on its way to Berlin. Prokofiev, who had lived abroad from just after the Russian Revolution until he returned to his homeland in the late 1930s, was conducting the first symphony he had written in 16 years. Expectations ran high among the war-weary audience members in Moscow. He produced a work of triumphant social realism depicting, particularly in its second and fourth movements, the mechanization and raw industrial might of the idealized modern Soviet State. This symphony was the highlight of Prokofiev’s career. Yet it is also a work in which can be heard pricks of anxiety and yearning, a kind of uneasiness that saves it from being mere bombast.

Musically, it’s a workout for the brass and wind sections, most especially for the tuba player (heroically done by Frederick Boyd), as well as for the flutist Richard Sherman with his glistening phrasing. The sometimes shrieking strings and stabbing basses were garnished with colorful percussion (timpani, triangles, cymbals, tambourine, snare drum, woodblocks, tam-tam and bass drum), ably played in the main, through passages of manic energy when Milanov whipped his musicians into a frenzy. In the third movement, the most disconcerting Menuetto ever written (try dancing to it), Milanov brought out its wistful strangeness, like a half-forgotten face seen in a cracked mirror, punctuated by the savage abruptness of piercing violins and the falling cries of pungent woodwinds.

Milanov is a commanding conductor with a clear beat in his right hand, who uses his left and the rest of his body to transmit an unusually wide range of expressive gestures — he stirs the pot, his clawed hands clench the climaxes, he jabs the air with his baton, he rises on his toes, he points heavenward, he wiggles his fingers, and stamps his feet. That is not to say he is histrionic. Not in the least. Milanov is no Leonard Bernstein — great as he was — who often appeared to be conducting more for the audience than for his musicians. Instead, Milanov danced his interpretation and the orchestra responded with a compelling and satisfyingly detailed performance. Also notable is that, unlike many conductors, Milanov does not favor the strings, but conducts the back of his orchestra — giving the winds, brass and percussion the same level of interpretive signals that results in all staves of the score being brought to life.

Milanov’s reputation has not yet caught up with his talent. While he holds several directorships simultaneously, he is only now coming into wider recognition, and Chautauqua was canny in nabbing him now.

As the opening work, Milanov conducted Borodin’s “In the Steppes of Central Asia,” a nine-minute programmatic work written for the 25th anniversary of the reign of Alexander II, who did much to expand the Russian empire eastward. With its eerie high string tones, the opening of the tone poem evokes empty desert lands and the appearance of a band of Russians signaled by a folk melody. A caravan of Central Asians arrives with what Borodin called “melancholy strains of Oriental music,” introduced first by the English horn, expertly and sinuously played by oboist Jason Weintraub. An explosive thematic statement is eventually followed by a gradual diminuendo as the caravan fades into the distance, those quiet moments unfortunately marred by rustles and coughs from the audience. (Alas, a yipping dog passing by also spoiled the closing measures of the symphony’s Andante movement).

The evening began with brief remarks by Marty Merkley, in one of his last introductions before he steps down as vice president and director of programming next month. As a one-time surprise, Merkley said, audience members could, before the music began, use their cellphones and iPads to take photographs of the orchestra. And many did, rushing down the aisles to snap photos and selfies. Maestro Milanov, with a wide grin, posed on the podium in front of his new band.

Johanna Keller writes on music and culture and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Opera News. She founded the Goldring Arts Journalism program at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School, where she teaches writing.