Bruce Liu performs Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto as Philadelphia Orchestra remembers the late Andre Watts
Before Montreal-born conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin introduced classical pianist Bruce Liu to the Gerald R. Ford Amphiteater stage Thursday night in Vail, he told the audience, “One shining light has gone now into the sky; a new star is coming.”
It was a fitting introduction for a concert held one day after the passing of Andre Watts, the first internationally famous Black concert pianist. Watts began his six-decade-long career performing as a 10-year-old with the Philadelphia Orchestra — then under the baton of Eugene Ormandy — a relationship which continued, uninterrupted, with the group through Nézet-Séguin’s 2008 debut. That wasn’t the only serendipitous element in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s penultimate performance within its weeklong residency, which ends Friday with Mozart’s Requiem.
“The coincidence is almost overwhelming emotionally because the piece we played together was Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto,” Nézet-Séguin continued as an audible hush fell over the packed venue. “So, this resonates very personally and as you can understand, this entire concert and especially this performance, we all have Andre on our hearts.”
The program would feature both Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances Op. 45 and the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, but opened with Fanfare Ritmico, written by Jennifer Higdon at the turn of the millennium.
One couldn’t help but immediately sense the work’s message: the rapid acceleration of life in the modern world.
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“I found myself reflecting on how all things have quickened as time has progressed,” the program notes revealed of the composer’s thoughts in writing the piece. “Our lives now move at speeds much greater than what I believe anyone could have ever imagined in years past.”
Considering recent upgrades from dial-up internet and Blackberrys to 5G, artificial intelligence and the iPhone 14, the relevant theme resonated.
In most concerts, loyal percussionists highlight their faithfulness by willingly counting 45 minutes of rests for one triangle hit, but Thursday’s active, rhythmically-focused six-minute opener demanded something different. The four musicians certainly got their workout in, playing 26 instruments total, not counting the timpani.
The tight back-and-forth between the low strings and brass about three-fourths of the way through was a particularly engaging musical interaction, though inattentive listeners could have easily missed it amid the hustle and bustle of the chaotic piece. Sort of like when a taxi honking in Times Square just happens to dance in time with the flashing lights of an AT&T advertisement on the electronic billboard above.
Though Rachmaninoff himself may have disliked the lack of melodic focus — he once said “I do not appreciate composers who abandon melody and harmony for an orgy of noises and dissonances” — every instrument did come together in the last bar. The unison conclusion was brief, but final and ultimately fitting to Higdon’s goal of capturing the hectic business of modernity. As the piece rushed to a close, one couldn’t help but conjure up images of regular folk scheming to end a meeting, finish a phone call, get home from work and pick up the kids at soccer practice right as the crockpot beeps and the dinner guests arrive.
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The first half concluded with the three-movement Symphonic Dances, which the composer originally meant as a metaphor for the three stages of human life. Though he ultimately scrapped the idea, themes of young and old could be faintly detected. Under Nézet-Séguin’s powerful baton, exaggerated by the exposure of the 48-year-old’s muscular arms jutting out from his ornately designed black short-sleeve collared shirt, the orchestra asserted the bold melody of the first movement in such a way as to elicit thoughts of a daring youth who believes death can be eternally evaded — no matter the risks taken.
The mournful English horn, with the help of other woodwinds, piano and the glockenspiel, ushered in a beautifully written and relatively expansive coda. Hearkening back to three of the composer’s most painful years, Rachmaninoff quoted his failed First Symphony. Its reflective colors contrasted the brazen march with the reality of life’s potential tragedy. Concertmaster David Kim’s talent of subtly directing phrase was on full display during the tearjerking string section which followed. Kim is capable of managing things on his own, too, as he did during his second movement solo.
Muted brass opened the Andante con moto, and the ‘with movement’ meaning was not lost on anyone. Flutes flew up and down chromatic scales as the low strings bounced off-beats against the violin and viola’s more melodic lines. The woodwinds were once again the most valuable players in the work. The section’s solos were vital in moving the orchestra from one thought to the next. A spunky finish slid audience members to the edge of their seats — some wondered if now was the time for applause — in anticipation of the third movement’s resolution.
By weaving in Orthodox liturgical chants with quotations of Dies irae, Rachmaninoff’s distinctly Russian sound was obvious and dramatic in the conclusions of both Symphonic Dances (and the piano concerto later). Something should be said of the wonderfully crisp double and triple-tonguing of the brass and woodwinds at this point. Each note was given full-bodied weight within the clean and quick arpeggio fanfares sprinkled throughout the movement.
The night’s intermission could be seen as symbolic of Rachmaninoff’s own hiatus from the music-making world. He nearly gave up composing following his dud First Symphony in 1897. Bravo! Vail artistic director Anne-Marie McDermott explained the chapter well in introducing the concert.
“Rachmaninoff had an emotional and creative block at a certain point in his career,” she said. He started seeing a hypnotist every day as a result.
“His hypnotist would say to him, ‘You will write a piano concerto, you will write a piano concerto, it’s going to be brilliant,'” she paraphrased as the audience laughed. “And so after three years, Rachmaninoff felt better and he wrote a piano concerto … and it was an instant hit.”
The same could be said of the young Liu, who established a commanding musical presence from the moment he sat down behind the Steinway & Sons grand piano. He cemented it in the Second Concerto’s first notes, his serious, shiny black shirt matching the work’s immediately detectable dark and intense flavors.
Though not as excessive in his movements as Watts probably was when he played the same piece with Nézet-Séguin 15 years ago, Liu’s finishing of phrase with a raised eyebrow or slight lean towards his supporting cast were important in connecting the soloist with the broader music-making task at hand. The Canadian, winner of the 2021 XVIII International Chopin Piano Competition, was keenly aware of his solo in relation to the rest of the orchestra, flowing into their parts and responding dynamically whenever they pointed the spotlight back his way.
With each technically demanding cadenza, Liu never failed to press into a cluster’s most important note or pull out the key line amidst a dazzling run. In each daunting stack of climbing chords, the virtuoso weighted the primary pitch, building his own beautiful Saint Basil’s Cathedral right up to the magnificent end.
Classical piano is a lot like figure skating. Both performers gracefully mesh power with finesse, speed with suspense and raw physicality with elegant emotion. Similar to the Olympic event — enjoyed by wides swaths of casual viewers and former professionals alike — a night spent enjoying a virtuoso piano concerto is capable of attracting multitudes precisely because of its accessibility.
“I don’t know much about music,” said one delighted middle-aged man as he left Ford Amphitheater under a mountain sunset. “But I can just tell when I see something really good. That was just great.”