Above: pianist Daniil Trifonov
Tuesday December 30th, 2014 - My final musical event of the year. Avery Fisher Hall was packed with avid music-lovers as the Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena (NY Philharmonic debut) took the podium for the opening work, Capriccio espagnol by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Painted in vibrant colours and dancing in dazzling rhythms, this Capriccio is a vivid evocation of Spain. Finding inspiration in Spanish folk songs, Rimsky-Korsakov cast the piece in five continuous movements: Alborada (“morning song”); Variazoni; again Alborada; “Scene and Gypsy Song”; and the fabulous Fandango Asturiano (a dance popular in northern Spain) which features the lilting sonic illusion of guitars being strummed to the jaunty clicking of castanets. The work features prominent passages for the solo violin, Sheryl Staples winning a round of 'bravas' as the conductor led her forward a solo bow at the end. Likewise Carter Brey (cello), Robert Langevin (flute) and Anthony McGill (clarinet) were all embraced by the enthusiastic crowd. And the horns were having a fine night of it. Señor Mena's debut was off to an auspicious start.
Kudos to the Hall's stagehands who re-configured the seating and parked the Steinway front-and-center in the twinkling eye.
The appearance of the boyish Daniil Trifonov was warmly greeted; with a charismatic air of mystery, this pale young man seemed to summon up imaginings of such great pianistic wonders as Chopin and Liszt who, if we believe what is written, could cast a spell over the multitudes with their virtuosic musical wizardry and their spiritual connection to the piano itself. Mr. Trifonov was so clearly enamoured of the keyboard, caressing it with his elegantly styled hands, nearly putting his ear to the keys as if they were whispering secrets to him. Intense when in motion, he seemed to be under in the piano's thrall, unable to resist it, like an obsessive lover. If all of this sounds high-flown, it's thoroughly true - though of course it would all be for nought if he lacked the technical mastery to match his physical passion. But...he has massive technique: he seems to burn with it, in fact.
So it became both an aural and a visual fascination to experience his playing tonight, playing that was beautifully embraced by the orchestral sound under Maestro Mena's articulate leadership. For all the spectacular fluency of Trifonov's agility as his hands whisked magically up and down the keyboard, it was in the central Andante that his mystic conversation with Rachmaninoff reached us most affectingly: especially in the gentle hush of the long, slow ascent at the end.
Hailed by the crowd, the pianist gave us a solo encore played with delicate rapture. You can get a sense of the spell Daniil Trifonov casts with his playing here. And this quote from a Playbill article about the pianist says so much about him as an artist: "...he approaches his work almost as a mission, and has compared the classical performer to a pastor and the performance space to a temple of art. He is ever mindful of the audiences who, he believes, need to experience something profound and meaningful in every concert."
Above: conductor Juanjo Mena
Maestro Mena has an Old World aura about him: passionate yet gentlemanly. His rendering of the Tchaikovsky 6th (Pathétique) symphony had great melodic breadth as well as a sense of nobility. From Judith LeClair's pensive opening bassoon passage, the symphony bloomed sonically with some truly splendid playing by the Philharmonic's richly gifted artists. In the midst of so much fabulous music-making, one moment stood out as exceptional: Anthony McGill's truly remarkable - whispered - playing of the clarinet theme near the end of the first movement. This was some of the purest and truest music-making I've ever experienced: how daring of Mr. McGill to play it ppppp...and how gorgeously he succeeded!
The symphony's final movement, the Adagio Lamentoso, was choreographed (more as a ritual than an actual ballet) by George Balanchine; seeming to be the choreographer's farewell to the world, it was performed only once during his lifetime, at the New York City Ballet's 1981 Tchaikovsky Festival. Longtime NYCBalletomanes have different memories of repeat performances, but it's most likely true that it was seen again - just once - after Balanchine's death, danced as a memorial. I never saw it, but I wish that I had.