Pacific Symphony's spectacular Rachmaninov ends its summer season

By Truman C. Wang
September 15, 2015         

Olga kern, piano

Olga kern, piano

Pacific Symphony’s 2015 summer concerts came to an auspicious close last Saturday with a superlative Second Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninov.  Olga Kern, the Russian pianist who won the Van Cliburn Gold in 2001, was that rare artist able to bring out the essence of Rachmaninov’s music – its fiery athleticism interspersed with melancholy introspection.   In the famous Moderato opening of the concerto, it became clear early on that the pianist, by her impetuous nature, tried to break away and race ahead of the orchestra several times, only to be reined in reluctantly by conductor Carl St. Clair’s fairly pedestrian tempi.  The many repetitive chords and figurations that would sound tedious by other pianists literally came alive with colors and burnished intensity under Ms. Kern’s fingers.  In the Adagio sostenuto, the mood of aching romantic longings was beautifully sustained (sostenuto) by Ms. Kern’s hushed, lyrical playing, as well as Jessica Pearlman Fields’ deeply soulful oboe.  At its conclusion, the ever-intense pianist, eyes closed, slowly raised her arms and opened her palms skyward, as if in a trance.  Tempestuous display resumed in the concluding Allegro scherzando, where the pianist once again threatened to toss the orchestra into the winds.  The sheer sparkle and excitement of her playing rivaled the actual fireworks that were to come at the end of the evening.  Two years ago, when she played the Rachmaninov Etudes and the C-Sharp Minor Prelude in a recital, I was mesmerized by those same qualities.  This time around, they are no less impressive.  With the exception of Martha Argerich, there is no other living pianist I would rather hear play Rachmaninov than Olga Kern.

After having devoted nearly 300 words on the wonderful Russian pianist, the rest of the concert seems a bit of an afterthought, an antipasto or hors’ d’oeuvre, depending on how you look at it.  The Sleeping Beauty Introduction and Waltz and the Firebird Suite (1919 version) received decent readings from maestro St. Clair and showcased many principal players of the Pacific Symphony.  The lackluster sound system of the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre could not dampen the audience’s enthusiasm.  The final 1812 Overture, aided by the good ol’ local Huntington Beach Concert Band, sent up some spectacular fireworks as well as brought down the curtain on the Symphony’s outdoor summer season.

The 2015-2016 season starts October 1 at the Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.  Go to Pacific Symphony for ticket info.

Truman C. Wang is editor-in-chief of Classical Voice.  Since 2003, his articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pasadena Star-News, and other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.