Richardson — The Richardson Symphony opened its 2017-2018 season on Saturday at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts with some popular works from the standard repertoire. Music director Clay Couturiaux kept a tight control over both the major works: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3.
Couturiaux has a precise beat pattern that is clear and contained to the space around him, eschewing large gestures. He also has great rapport with the orchestra; perhaps because he came from their ranks as a cellist on his way to the podium. But there is a tightness to his baton technique, which is perhaps due to his efforts to contain his gestures in a limited space. Whatever the reason, he is easy for the orchestra to follow and is in constant contact with his players. You can’t ask for more than that.
The program opened with orchestral transcription of Bach’s Preludium in E-major, BWV 1006, by William Smith. It is always dangerous to transcribe a piece from the Baroque for modern orchestra, even more so when Bach’s prelude was originally written for solo violin. It was helpful to the current orchestrator that Bach himself already made an orchestration of the same piece for his wedding cantata Herr Gott, Beherrscher aller Dinge, BWV 120a. This transcription was written for Eugene Ormandy, whose grandiose arrangements of box organ music are as well-known as they are overblown. This arrangement is a much more modest affair. The orchestra did a fine job of surmounting its many difficulties.
Next came Beethoven’s seventh symphony. This is an exceptionally difficult piece to play and is always a challenge for the orchestra and for the conductor. The trap that conductors frequently fall into is all the repetition that is a hallmark of this piece. A conductor needs a roadmap through the symphony from the start, bring the audience with him on the journey, and make all the repeated passages sound slightly different from each other to avoid sounding repetitious.
Couturiaux did a decent job in accomplishing this nearly impossible task, but there were times when the audience began to zone out. This symphony is all about rhythm and contains very little melodic material. In fact, the second movement, which is usually the slow movement of a symphony, is marked allegretto here. So, it’s obvious that Beethoven wanted it to move right along.
An additional challenge is the fact that Beethoven presents the accompaniment figure at the beginning and then adds a descant, but keeps the melody unstated. It is his own private possession. Of course, that’s all my speculation and perhaps instead of melodic material he chose to present harmonic movement.
After intermission, we heard Rachmaninoff’s massive third piano concerto in the hands of the brilliant pianist, Alexandre Moutouzkine. He is always an impressive performer every time we have the privilege to hear him play. In a review for a Chamber Music International concert I wrote:
“Russian pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine has been a local favorite ever since he won the Special Award for Artistic Potential at the 11th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. All his considerable musical skills, especially his subtle phrasing, were on display. Flawless technique is expected these days, but Moutouzkine makes perfection look easy.”
I have much the same to say this time, except it isn’t possible for any pianist to make this concerto look easy. It is a monster of a piece that makes superhuman demands on the pianist, the orchestra and the conductor. It is obvious that the piano part is murderously difficult and requires an immense amount of endurance and fingers of steel. Moutouzinke has all the technical mastery required to play it, the nimble fingers, and good instincts on how it should go.
There were times where he could’ve been more relaxed or started sections at a faster tempo, such as the big cadenza, which would have been more effective if he started slower and accelerated. However, that is a small quibble. It was said that Rachmaninoff told Vladimir Horowitz, when he first heard him play this concerto, that he ate the piece whole. I would say the same about the performance that Moutouzkine delivered; he created much the same effect.
Conductor Couturiaux did a remarkable job. He was in constant contact with the pianist and right with him one hundred percent of the time. This is a remarkable accomplishment for even top-level conductors because of all the give and take that pianists lavish on this concerto. The orchestra responded to Couturiaux and he also listened to the pianist. As a result, it was a tight performance.
However, there were times when the orchestra overpowered the pianist, forcing Moutouzkine to overplay. This created the double demerits in that it created too many pseudo big moments, and the really big moments had nowhere to go. Moutouzkine gave his best to be heard over the wall of orchestral sound and he succeeded in that endeavor. But it forced him to overplay and rise above the piano bench to get maximum power too many times.
These are small complaints but the performance was so excellent that only these little details stood out. And that is a compliment to pianist, orchestra and conductor.