Monterey Symphony, Nov 18

By Scott MacClelland

POOR BEDEVILED SERGEI PROKOFIEV, suspicious, jealous, paranoid… But when he sat at the piano he showed ‘em all, as brilliant a composer as he was a pianist. His third piano concerto, as performed by the Monterey Symphony on the weekend with Huhsoloist David Jae-Weon Huh, the tallest Korean man I have ever seen, sizzled the piece with shooting stars that left the Saturday night audience in Carmel at first breathless but then noisy in its enthusiasm. Prokofiev composed five piano concertos, each with its own measure of brilliance, but this one, completed in 1921 in France and premiered with the composer as soloist in that year in Chicago, has enjoyed the greatest popularity of them. Its haunting melodies, often-stringent harmonies, sparkling syncopations and spectacular climaxes impart a circuslike atmosphere of spinning lights and dizzying high-wire acrobatics. The piece works out the orchestra nearly as much as the soloist and Max Bragado-Darman’s ‘instrument’ rose to the challenge.

The second movement, a variations, was initially sketched out in 1913. It’s a tour de force by itself, a showpiece for the orchestra and riotous in its style contrasts. The theme itself Prokofiev would later recycle in his ballet Romeo and Juliet of 1935. The second variation is motivated by a strong backbeat that gives it a jazzy character. The third variation, with its prominent horn solo, recalls Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody, which would not be composed until 13 years later in 1934! Since Prokofiev was famously jealous of Rachmaninoff’s hugely popular concertos, could it be that the older composer was just rubbing it in? An odd feature of the movement is that Prokofiev ends each variation with the same sighing gesture.

Back to the races for the final movement, like the first another steeplechase that goes on to achieve the greatest climax of the entire concerto. One artificial gauge of its success in performance is how long it feels, as measured against the clock. In this case, its 30 minutes flew by in what felt like scarcely more than 20. To rousing applause, David Jae-Weon Huh rewarded the audience with an extravagantly virtuosic arrangement of themes from Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, a paraphrase of blistering proportions by a fin de siècle Austrian pianist named Alfred Grünfeld.

Like an echo, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony concluded the program. For its last three movements (played without break) 30 members of Youth Music Monterey’s Honors Orchestra joined the Symphony musicians, ‘side by side,’ adding greater depth of sonority to the whole and warming the hearts of those fans who still bet on a robust future for classical music in America—or at least in Monterey County. (The full Honors Orchestra played the Beethoven the Sunday before in the same hall. Click HERE)

Bragado paced the opening movement as a cheerful stroll through the woods, all sunshine and gentle zephyrs, skipping over its repeat of exposition. The “Scene by the brook” flattered the woodwinds, the birds chirping with infinite charm. Somehow Beethoven continued to turn up new tropes on material heard earlier-on, if not with the same concentrated determination that makes the Fifth Symphony so famous.

Then with the 30 YMM musicians on board came the big adventure: the “Merry gathering of country folk”—the scherzo of the piece—followed by the “Thunderstorm” and the “Happy feelings after the storm” as introduced by the “Shepherd’s song.” Shepherd’s song indeed; this infectious tune gives way to one of Beethoven’s great climactic arcs, a suspense-filled piece of harmonic architecture that invites conductors to approach with caution lest they peak too early or too late. Getting that effect right, as the abundant recorded evidence shows, is no stroll through the woods, and demands a strangely elusive elasticity of tempo. I would like to hear both Bragado and YMM conductor Farkhad Khudyev, from a week earlier, have another go at it.