by Joseph E. Morgan
On November 17-19, 2016 the Nashville Symphony presented a concert which included two contemporary works for orchestra and two of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire performed by the emerging virtuoso soloist Boris Giltburg.The contemporary pieces, slated for a future Naxos release, include Jonathan Leshnoff’s Starburst (2010) and Aaron Jay Kernis’s Color Wheel (2001). Leshnoff, a Baltimore-based composer, burst onto the scene after the 2010 premiere of Starburst with the Baltimore Symphony. The work has since been programed by more than 20 orchestras and his works have been championed by the likes of violinist Gil Shaham and guitarist Manuel Barrueco. Given its reputation, Starburst is surprisingly brief at a mere eight minutes, marked by two grand textural and dynamic crescendos and connected by a stirring clarinet cadenza—on Friday it provided a very exciting opening for the concert.
Kernis’s Color Wheel is a cross between a symphony and concerto, expressing a “sense of constant change” in timbre. It is a musically and compositionally virtuosic miniature that treats the orchestra as “a large and dynamic body of sound and color.” It was composed for the opening of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Kimmel Center in 2001. After opening with an obnoxiously dissonant (and delightful) chord, the piece proceeded through a lovely chorale and led to a rainbow of genre-based colors, a little blues here, a Straussian orchestra there, all connected by a shifting expression in continuous motions of tension and energy. As it was created to display a fantastic orchestra’s virtuosity (the Philadelphia Orchestra) it was also an excellent vehicle for the Nashville Symphony who really shined in this performance. One is quite excited for this recording’s release, expecting there might even be another Grammy coming for Guerrero and Company.
Meanwhile, for the virtuosic part of the evening, Russian/Isreali pianist Boris Giltburg brought the heat, performing not one, but two of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s most virtuosic pieces—the rarely heard 1941 edition of his Concerto No. 4 for piano and his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Constantly on the edge of his bench, head fixed in concentration, Giltburg’s impassioned performance was both energetic and lyrical, bringing an explosive volume from the opening’s “double handed keyboard” texture. The courage with which he and the orchestra proceeded through the never-ending syncopation of Rachmaninoff’s work, in a determination measured only by sheer abandon, was wonderful. Similarly, his rendition of the Rhapsody was also remarkable. By the time they had reached the ultra-lugubrious theme in the 18th variation, it was arrived at not as a goal nor a height, but instead a respite from the thunderous virtuosity that had come before.
In all, it was an odd program, and one expects that the seemingly random decision to match such virtuosic 19th century pianism with contemporary, 21st century music was a result of necessity rather than aesthetics. Nevertheless, the success of the evening was demonstrated by the nearly endless standing ovation. Indeed the audience only sat down when Giltburg returned to the stage to encore with Brahms’s Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2 in A major. The introspection of this encore was a tonic to the virtuosity and bombast of everything that came before. It was a wonderful, if exhausting, concert.