[News-Press] A star in the symphonic house
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
Santa Barbara Symphony, featuring star pianist Helene Grimaud, soars higher than usual
Along with other revelations and realizations delivered over the weekend via the latest Santa Barbara Symphony program featuring piano great Hélène Grimaud, at the Granada Theatre, one bold impression had to do with the old adage: not all soloists are created equal. In the present, highly competitive and virtuoso-populated period in classical music, many highly talented and often young and spotlight-friendly concert soloists are available and able to seize the challenging spotlight of concerto work, and rise to the occasion with poise and professionalism.
And yet, when an artist of the lofty stature of Ms. Grimaud takes the stage, the musical experience can be on an entirely greater and more profound level, as happened when she showed us what she thinks about and how she chooses to grace the score of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. As heard at Sunday afternoon's performance, compared to a more straight-laced reading of the large-scaled concerto (which took up the entirety of the concert's first half), she went higher, deeper and to places where surprise lives, and generally lived up to our high expectations of what she brings to the piano — and to an orchestral collaboration.
This was an important moment in the history of the Santa Barbara Symphony, which can be counted on to host very fine soloists, but very rarely from such an upper echelon place in the ranks of living classical masters. Ms. Grimaud, last in town for a fondly-remembered recital at the Lobero Theatre in 2011, and she was appearing with the local symphony on the heels of a performance of the same Brahms concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, a week prior. She has been in close contact with Brahms' Concertos, No. 1 and 2, in the past year, performing them on many occasions and with a recent recording out.
In other words, she came to Santa Barbara even more well-prepared than usual. Ms. Grimaud, the famed French pianist with a sense of what some view as sometimes idiosyncratic style, came out on the Granada stage in loose, shiny silver slacks and a light blue top. She gathered thoughts as maestro Nir Kabaretti led his charges in the orchestral opening to the epic-ish work (which was variously a symphony and other forms before the composer settled on the Piano Concerto). The first piano part starts mildly, melodically and in octaves and chordal colors, leading into a fiercer piano part, with some heavy pedaling on her part, to suggest what was to come.
Over the course of the Concerto, we got the clear sense that the pianist really has a striking command of this piece. Hers, though, is a mastery which encompasses a measured, lived-in understanding, not a superficial or showy dealing with the score's built-in emotive baths or virtuosic set-pieces. She brings a cohesive whole to the interpretation, equipped with an integrity and personal signature of her own.
Said personal touch was particularly on display during the moving middle Adagio section, in which she followed Mr. Kabaretti's languid orchestral opening by easing further down in tempo and ruminating, dreamily rubato phrasing. In sharp contrast, she locked into the more naturally forceful and momentum-pumping energies required of the Concerto's well-known final movement, the Rondo, which contains more of that old Brahm-ian harrumph and uber-bluster, compared to the subtler designs of its opening movement. Fittingly, the pianist worked up a head of romantic steam for the occasion, while also injecting some tempering force of graceful nuances and meaningful gestures, right through to the end.
She returned, thankfully, for a short solo piano encore of Rachmaninoff's Tableau, Opus 33 No. 2. It was a supply rippling, carefully textured and altogether beautiful example of the species of modern musical content we can call Grimaud pianism (pianistic Grimaud-ism?).
Returning to more regular programming after intermission, Mr. Kabaretti led the orchestra in a trio of pieces linked to the Valentine's Day-timed notion of love and validating the concert's marketing nickname "Salute to Love." In fact, the program included the brief, titular sprinkle of Elgar's short and mushy (in dullness of content and saccharine sentiment) "Salut d'Amour." Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" Fantasy-Overture is a sure crowd-pleaser and greatest hit of the 19th century, with its famous keening, swooping theme, and the show-closer, Ravel's Suite No. 2 from "Daphnis et Chloe" ended on a high and misty note, with its impressionistic flutter and filigree. The piece ends with a crazed, unhinged finale, as if portraying a love affair or Valentine's Day date gone tumultuous.
In the best moments of the second half, as well as the solid playing behind the pianist on the Brahms, the Symphony conjured up a clean, formidable orchestral sound that one could imagine would appeal to the high standards of, say, an Hélène Grimaud.