By Truman C. Wang
French pianist Hélène Grimaud is one of those rare artists who possess the ability to open our eyes and ears afresh to a piece of tired old concert repertoire and discover new gems hidden within. In many ways, the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major suits her style perfectly – unflashy, passionate, poetic – an unassuming piece that conceals within it formidable virtuoso passages no less stunning than the outwardly flashy First Concerto. Ms. Grimaud showed us in the first two movements that passion and poetry could be sharply contrasting two sides of the same coin – both musically and physically with her caressing the keyboard tenderly or attacking the rapid octaves and arpeggios with all the might of her small, petite frame. The quietly romantic Andante (Brahms’ loving homage to Clara) heard Ms. Grimaud in a mood of joyful reverie, matched by Principal cello Robert DeMaine’s eloquent solo playing. The final Allegretto grazioso was truly a graceful dance with a few Gypsy elements thrown in, plus a brief reminder of the first-movement horn theme. American James Gaffigan also impressed with his sensitive conducting, bringing out the lush textures of the winds and brasses unique to the Second Concerto, and matching the many moods of Ms. Grimaud in perfect harmony.
To say the rest of the concert program was an anticlimax would not be an unfair assessment, although the world-premiere work, Unchained, by James Matheson was a compelling musical protest of the penal system and employed a massive orchestra. It deserved to be heard side-by-side with Ravel’s equally massive Daphnis and Chloe Ballet Suite No. 2. Mr. Gaffigan’s conducting again showed scrupulous sensitivity to the Impressionistic colors in Ravel’s music, allowing this glorious work to shimmer and sparkle with blinding intensity. It is a shame that an offstage chorus was not available to enhance the effects of ‘Daybreak’ and the final ‘General Dance’. However, the superb orchestral playing almost made up for it.
Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.