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Review: With Pianist George Li, Russian National Orchestra Strikes a Chord with Granada Crowd

Pianist George Li Click to view larger
Pianist George Li recently performed at The Granada Theatre with the Russian National Orchestra. (Simon Fowler photo)

A huge crowd turned out in the rain when the Community Arts Music Association of Santa Barbara hosted an all-Sergei Rachmaninoff concert by the Russian National Orchestra with pianist George Li at The Granada Theatre on Feb. 27 as part of its 100th anniversary season international series.

The evening opened with the expansive, all-ages orchestra performing the melodic Vocalise, originally written as an exercise for a singer. It was a warm introduction to the depth of sound the RNO offers and to the popular tunes Rachmaninoff penned early-ish in his career.

The compact, athletic 2015 Tchaikovsky competition silver medalist Li joined the orchestra for the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 18, which debuted in 1901.

The work was an artistic “comeback” for Rachmaninoff, whose first piano concerto had bombed in 1897. The four-year “dry spell” that he subsequently experienced as a composer may have been cured by a four-month run of daily hypnotherapy.

The first movement opened with solo piano on the left end of the keys, leading into a ripping section when the orchestra joined in. Li’s hair shook and his body strained against gravity during the first section. Vibrating strings under deep brass kept it all in the low register, but when the piano came back in, Li’s physical calm and light touch lifted the mood and the range.

The Adagio second movement came in as a soothing massage for the ears with gentle piano, softer strings and the woodwinds coming forward.

The piece was the obvious inspiration for the pop song “Without You” written by British rockers Badfinger, but recorded in its iconic chart-topping form by Harry Nilsson in 1971. Several phrases were quoted “verbatim” in the song.

The final Allegro scherzando told a grand story, coming to a big conclusion that left the soloist visibly sweating and the audience on its feet cheering.

After a momentary break, Li returned to the stage for a solo encore that left spirits high for intermission.

Bolstered with even more musicians for the final work, the orchestra’s numbers swelled to the point that artists were seated almost into the wings. And they pulled out all the stops for the Symphonic Dances, Opus 45 from 1940, which Rachmaninoff reportedly envisioned as a ballet.

With clear narrative elements, the first movement started out dancey, evoking fluid duets between a pair of youthful lovers, a young man and his crew following a trumpet’s call on a woodland adventure, string-driven pastoral optimism.

The waltzy Andante con moto finds the lovers reunited, a contemplative solo violin signaling they know they shouldn’t, soft strings accompanying a furtive promenade.

A party swells around them, but you can hear a conversation between winds and strings, by turns swoons, concerns, rapture, caution. The scene ends on a deeper note, the timpani of a father’s admonitions?

The final movement Allegro vivace starts strong with the bass section (yes, there were enough for a section), percussion providing punctuation amid allusions to bell towers, rushing in the town square: sprightly xylophone, winds in a high register, dreamy harp, various voices in the brass.

From an almost secretive quiet, the piece bursts into a final crescendo that propelled the audience to its feet again, followed by a fast encore that showed us all how it really is.

The crowd was eager to see founder/conductor Mikhail Pletnev’s nearly 30-year-old orchestra, billed as the premier artistically independent Russian ensemble. Pletnev, himself a Tchaikovsky piano competition gold medalist more than 30 years before Li competed, conducts with understated style that allows the almost 100 musicians the attention they richly deserve.

Noozhawk contributor and local arts critic Judith Smith-Meyer is a round-the-clock appreciator of the creative act. She can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are her own.

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