Intermezzo concert . . . pianist Daniil Trifonov (above) Photo: Dario Acosta and conductor Kent Nagano (below) Photo: Felix Broede
Groans from the audience greeted the announcement that Friday’s concert on June 27 would be the grand finale of the Intermezzo concert series hosted for the last few years by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) in Jerusalem’s Sherover Theater. In addition to the music, these highly popular concerts also featured an introductory lecture explaining the works to be played as well as coffee and cake. Whether the culinary component was the main reason for the popularity of these concerts remains conjectural!
This concert provided the best that one comes to expect from the IPO. The conductor was American born Kent Nagano, currently the music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. In 2015 he will take up the position of music director of the Hamburg State Opera.
The concert began with Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C Major. Bizet composed this masterpiece at the tender age of 17 in about one month while he was studying at the Paris Conservatoire under the composer Charles Gounod. Only Mozart, Mendelssohn and Schubert showed such precocious talent at a similar age.
The orchestra was initially a little unsettled but rapidly moved into top gear and under Kent Nagano gave an ebullient rendering of the score. Especially noteworthy was the beautiful oboe playing in the second theme of the first movement. Mention should also be made of the haunting oboe melody in the Adagio slow movement accompanied with pizzicato by the strings.
Next on the program was Paul Dukas’s symphonic poem, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice based on a ballad by the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Lecturer Michael Wolpe pointed out that Dukas was Jewish and that his oeuvre was very small. He was so highly self- critical that he destroyed many of his compositions.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is Dukas’s best-known composition and relates how in the sorcerer’s absence, his apprentice attempts to emulate his master and persuades a broomstick to carry buckets of water for him. The situation rapidly gets out of control since the broom brings in so many buckets that the house is flooded. The apprentice chops the broom in half with an axe but to his horror, both pieces come to life and continue to fetch water at an even greater pace. Eventually the sorcerer returns to this chaos and breaks the spell.
This work was popularized by Walt Disney in his famous animated 1940 movie Fantasia. It was Mickey Mouse who took the role of the apprentice. Kent Nagano did a masterful job highlighting the virtuosity of the IPO. There were superb contributions by trumpets, bassoons, bass clarinet and percussion.
The real pièce de résistance of the concert was a performance of Tchaikovsky’s ever- popular first piano concerto. After completing the concerto, Tchaikovsky approached the Russian Jewish pianist and conductor, Nikolai Rubinstein, to premier the work. He also played it for Rubinstein. What followed was one of the most famous confrontations in the annals of music. According to Tchaikovsky’s own written account, Rubenstein said “the concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue”. Rubinstein added that if the concerto was completely revised according to his demands, then he would play it. Tchaikovsky replied that he would not “alter a single note" and approached German pianist Hans von Bülow who premiered the original version in Boston. The rest is history. Rubinstein subsequently revised his opinion, became an ardent admirer of the work and conducted its Moscow premiere.
The soloist in the performance in Jerusalem was pianist Daniil Trifonov, who won 3rd prize in the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 2010 and the following year first prize in the Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv and the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
Trifonov plays on a Fazioli piano. The Italian company manufacturing these pianos was established in 1981 and a little over 100 hand-built pianos are produced annually. Many established pianists have expressed their preference for these instruments and an increasing number use these Italian pianos in concert performances.
Crouching over the piano, Trifonov gave a dazzling, impeccable, authoritative and majestic account of this ever-popular war-horse. This was not only a flashy virtuosic display but a deeply probing account where he succeeded in capturing the subtle nuances of this score. I would like to hear this prodigiously gifted pianist in the non-romantic classical repertory to see if his unique talents also extend to this genre. As an encore, Trifonov gave a scintillating account of Chopin’s "Grande valse brillante" Op. 18 in E-Flat.
One hopes that the IPO will reconsider its decision to abandon this popular intermezzo series. Jerusalem is the poorer without it.