Pacific Symphony’s new season starts in high gear with Olga Kern’s Rachmaninoff

By Truman C. Wang

In his pre-concert talk, the congenial and always informative KUSC host Alan Chapman told of his dedication to the Pacific Symphony by driving from downtown L.A. to Costa Mesa in rush hour on a regular basis.  To many denizens of Los Angeles, a trip to Costa Mesa most likely means shopping and dining at the posh South Coast Plaza.  Little do they realize the breadth and depth of cultural offerings just a stone’s throw away at the Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.   Under the longtime leadership of Music Director Carl St. Clair, the Pacific Symphony consistently gives performances ranging from satisfying to inspiring.  Last Friday’s season opening concert was one such unforgettable, inspiring event that not even this week’s L.A. Phil all-Beethoven season opener could hope to top it.  The reason?  Pianist Olga Kern’s playing in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was one for the ages, one that’s worth braving two hours of rush traffic from downtown L.A.

Since winning first prize at the 2001 Van Cliburn Piano Competition, Olga Kern has proven herself the finest living interpreter of Rachmaninoff’s music.   Memories of her all-Rachmaninoff recital at the Segerstrom a few years ago still make one shiver with awe and delight, and her impassioned Rach 2 at Irvine Meadows last summer was no less fine.   Listening to her virtuosic, at times dreamy, traversal through the different sections of the “Rhapsody”, one had the distinct feeling of the pianist channeling the ghost of Rachmaninoff in her playing, down to the last tempo change and turn of phrase.  The famous 18th Variation was sweepingly romantic without being maudlin.  The galloping romp in the final 24th Variation achieved a demonic quality of the Faustian black horse racing into the Abyss.  For those familiar with Rachmaninoff’s own 1934 recording of the “Rhapsody”, Olga Kern’s playing, particularly in the jaw-dropping tour de force of the final variation, came closest to that fabled performance of any living pianist I know today. 

It was to the great credit of maestro Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony musicians that the remainder of the concert did not become an anticlimax.  Dvořák’s Carnival Overture featured  tremendous fiery swagger as well as sweetly lyrical playing from the winds.  Respighi’s Pines of Rome gave a vigorous workout for all sections of the orchestra – a sort of ‘orchestral Instagram’ – colorful snapshots of Respighi’s musical vignettes from Rome’s Villa Borghese, catacombs, Janus Temple and the Appian Way.  The new work on the program, I got a wiggle that I just can’t shake, by pianist/composer Conrad Tao, was inspired by the willowy architecture of the Segerstrom Concert Hall, but possesses little of its alluring qualities or graceful lines.  In his work, Mr. Tao hammered the orchestra like a giant piano on steroids.  I am sure I speak for many in the audience that we hope for the expeditious return of Mr. Tao to Costa Mesa as a hugely gifted pianist.