[Montecito Journal] The Power of the Piano
Richard Mineards, Montecito Journal
Nir Kabaretti is a big fan of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1, calling the famed work "probably the most perfect piano piece imaginable, because it has everything virtuosic, including heroic piano writing, but at the same time is extremely accessible" -- so much so that some of the passages "you can hear on cell phones as ring tones."
"Tchaikovsky captured pretty much everything audiences love: incredibly difficult and fast passages for the pianist, beautiful lines and melodies for the orchestra," said the music director of the Santa Barbara Symphony, which will perform the piece on this weekend's program. "There are extremely romantic and warm phrases combined with breathtaking portions for pianist, where he has to play octaves and even more difficult passages."
It's that last part that engenders something in Kabaretti that conductors aren't normally known for -- empathy.
"Whether I'm on the podium or in the audiences, I always feel for the pianist," Kabaretti admitted. "Can he or she make it through this part? It's like watching the Olympic games--can they beat the clock and establish a new record? I always feel that suspense."
Kabaretti has a strong sense of security in the choice of soloists for the demanding work, however as Markus Groh comes with an impressive pedigree. Groh, who will be making his Santa Barbara Symphony debut, rose to prominence when he became the first German to win Belgium's prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1995 and has since performed with some of the world's leading orchestras, including the London Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony.
"He's one of the most sought-after soloists," Kabaretti noted. "We're really thrilled to have someone on that kind of level, popular on the international map. He's considered a very deep and serious artist. It's a privilege to collaborate with this caliber of pianist."
But tackling the Tchaikovsky will be only part of Groh's duties in the concerts Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the Granada Theatre. Prior to playing that piece, Groh will join symphony principal pianist Natasha Kislenko for Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos in the work's debut with the orchestra. The work represents a rare presentation of a concert for multiple soloists for the Santa Barbara ensemble, which is something of an anomaly in the classical repertoire in its own.
What also sets the Mozart apart is that the composer wrote it to play with his sister, which made for an usual approach.
"The orchestra part is more in the background," Kabaretti explained. "The soloists have a dialogue between them, rather than the orchestra. They divide the solos between them, and the individual parts are not that individually difficult as with a typical concerto."
Opening the concerts is Manuel de Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain, featuring Kislenko in the solo piano. Only it's not really a typical solo, Kabaretti said.
"The pianist is featured within the orchestra environment," he explained. "It's treated as an equal in the orchestra rather than a dialogue with the ensemble. The piano emerges within the orchestra, mostly as just another color playing some beautiful parts within the piece. There are some impressionist moments amid the Spanish elements and brilliant orchestrations. It's very interesting and different."
As is the whole program, peppered throughout with piano.
"People love piano, so we thought it would be nice to turn the whole program into a piano showcase, and the instrument in these different variations," said Kabaretti. "I've never done a program like this before, so I'm really looking forward to it."