A night of big music

North State Symphony gives rich, mature performance of two great Romantic pieces

The hands of North State Symphony’s guest pianist Alexander Tutunov working through Rachmanioff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

The hands of North State Symphony’s guest pianist Alexander Tutunov working through Rachmanioff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Photo By Kyle Delmar

North State Symphony’s Romantic Riches, Saturday, May 14, Laxson Auditorium.

During his regular pre-concert talk before the North State Symphony’s season-capping Romantic Riches performance Saturday night (May 14) in Laxson Auditorium, Kyle Wylie Pickett was as enthusiastic as a conductor can be, even one as dependably enthusiastic as he is.

Speaking of one of the two works on the program, Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, he gushed, “This is without exaggeration my all-time favorite symphony.” For a guy who’s intimately familiar with dozens of symphonies, that’s saying something. And Pickett was only slightly less upbeat about the evening’s second work, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, saying that while rehearsing it with the orchestra that afternoon, he’d realized it was “probably my favorite piano concerto.” He promised that this evening’s performance was going to be “the symphony’s best of the season.”

That’s some heavy hype, tough to live up to. But Pickett had a not-so-secret weapon, namely Alexander Tutunov, the Russian-born pianist (he now lives in Ashland, Ore., where he teaches at Southern Oregon University) slated to perform the Rachmaninoff piece. Turns out Tutunov, a charming, witty man, had performed the Concerto No. 2 no fewer than eight times in the previous three months, including five shows in China. He, too, was rapturous, saying “I love every phrase, every note of this concerto.”

Rachmaninoff was perhaps the greatest pianist of his day. He was a big man, Tutunov said, with enormous hands that could reach a full two octaves on the keyboard. Chords that he could play with one hand others must play with two.

Rachmaninoff was a passionate showman, and he wrote these pieces for himself to play and perform. He loved big, bold melodies, and the Piano Concerto No. 2 has plenty of those. The music is simply gorgeous, and Tutunov, clearly inspired by the powerful sounds coming from the orchestra, especially the strings, played it with vigor and warmth as well as great technical skill.

A standing ovation brought him back for two solo encores, Franz Liszt’s exquisite “Liebestraum,” or “Love’s Dreams,” and a very short intermezzo by Brahms.

Nobody would say of Brahms that he had the passion of Rachmaninoff. Indeed, a common knock on him is that he was too academic, that his compositions, while intellectually brilliant, lack warmth and joy and tend to melancholy.

As Pickett suggested before the concert, Brahms had “a pretty tragic romantic life” and a lifelong “sense of unfulfilled love,” though we’ll never know whether the legendary love between him and Clara Schumann was ever consummated. Some of this melancholy is found in the fourth symphony, Pickett said, but the piece “also has moments of lift and joy.”

Where Rachmaninoff lays on the melody thickly, Brahms has a lighter touch, teasing out a melodic line and then taking it away. There are none of the big motifs here that one finds in the Rachmaninoff piece, but it’s nonetheless full of lovely moments intermingled, often in surprising ways, with more somber and dramatic passages.

You can see why orchestras and conductors like to play it. It’s rich and complex. Once I closed my eyes and allowed myself to enter Brahms’ world fully, I found myself being led through a kind of musical garden—sometimes a forest—of shifting sights and sounds, from the horns and violins of the second movement and the triangles of the third to the dramatic timpanis of the fourth.

Was this the best show of the symphony season? Who cares? It was fabulous.