in: Reviews

November 18, 2012

Zander and Li Deliver the Russians

by

George Li (file photo)

The Boston Philharmonic, conducted by Benjamin Zander, gave us memorable Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich at Sanders Theatre on November 15th. George Li, a 17-year-old pianist attending the Walnut Hill School for the Arts while studying privately at the New England Conservatory, opened with a strikingly mature interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 18.

The 2nd Piano Concerto is well-crafted like comfortable pair of old shoes from which one could never part, and may be the most popular piano concerto of all. For me it is a traditional family favorite; hearing a live performance at this time of year brought back nostalgic memories of listening to a recording of it while curled up on my grandparents’ sofa, with the aroma of wood smoke from a crackling fireplace permeating the house after our Thanksgiving dinner.

The romance of the piece lies not just in its popular melodies but in its yearning dissonance that tugs at the listener, and also in the signature richness of Rachmaninoff’s lower register voicing, which one tends to associate with his legendary, large hands. That is why it was so astonishing to hear such depth, power and range in a performance by such a young pianist.

With the very first opening notes, Li gently commenced with graceful sensitivity that formed into a softly playful lyricism, but containing all the complexity of expression needed to develop later into a powerful fortissimo of fully voiced richness and suspending dissonance. Li’s interpretation of the adagio was memorably distinctive for its Mozartean simplicity in the beginning, in contrast to its theme returning more passionately each time. His supreme delicacy brought forth in the music a very unique and latent element of wonder, his youth belying a musical maturity equal to his effortlessly flowing sense of ensemble. According to Zander’s opening discussion, Li’s “secret” is that he is not a “lonely pianist” but an experienced ensemble player who enjoys collaborating with other musicians. A deeply sensitive listener, his ensemble experience certainly shined through in the exquisite rhythmic clarity of his entire performance.

Li’s triumphant finish was followed by a standing ovation and two Rachmaninoff encores (Daisies, and Prelude in G Minor), expressing in solo the full range of Rachmaninoff’s art

Under Zander’s direction the orchestra of students, amateurs and professionals mastered Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47. What is less-known about the familiar piece is the controversy regarding accuracy of tempo in the final movement, and how historical information available since 1979 informs current performance practice. Zander’s introductory talk provided back story of the motivation behind this symphony. At the peak of Shostakovich’s career, when he had fully come into his celebrity, he received a scathing review that left him feeling a doomed man unable to sleep at night. The political gravity of this particular critic’s opinion was the source of Shostakovich’s ill-ease. The review was authored by Joseph Stalin. In 1936, Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mzensk (Katerina Ismailova), which had been circulating for two years prior, was criticized by Stalin as “the negation of the very principles of opera”, and a “thoroughly non-political concoction”.

From 1936 onward, Shostakovich composed in a cloud of dread. He retracted his 4th Symphony after the first rehearsal, and then proceeded to write the 5th not as a tone poem, but in traditional form, with the words, “a Soviet artist’s reply to criticism” demonstrating “the re-education of the human mind… under the influence of new ideals”. But to a novice hearing this symphony for the first time, knowing nothing of this particular composer’s place in Soviet history, these words are confusing. For what stands out, in movement after movement, is despair and yearning that is not romantic, but gray and nightmarish, ending in a forced sense of triumph that seems out of step with the overall tone. Boston Philharmonic’s performance captured these emotions in a soulful way. And indeed, there is also biographical evidence that Shostakovich believed the audience would grasp his cynicism, while the officials would hear what they wanted to hear. And he was right. But he could not have anticipated his cageyness being misunderstood by conductors. In Michael Steinberg’s program notes, he quotes Shostakovich from Testimony:

Awaiting execution is a theme that has tormented me all my life. Many pages of my music are devoted to it. Sometimes I wanted to explain that fact to the performers, I thought they would have a greater understanding of the work’s meaning. But then I thought better of it. You can’t explain anything to a bad performer, and a talented person should sense it himself…

I discovered to my astonishment that the man [Yevgeny Mravinsky] who considers himself its greatest interpreter does not understand my music. He says I wanted to write exultant finales for my Fifth and Seventh symphonies but I couldn’t manage it. It never occurred to this man that I never thought about exultant finales, for what exultation could there be? I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in [Mussorgsky’s] ‘Boris Godunov.’ It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’

Apparently, prior to the publication of this passage in 1979, very few did understand, and therefore interpreted his carefully organized tempos as some kind of elaborate misprint, taking unintended liberties instead of searching for the emotional clues those tempi implied. Zander gave a compelling demonstration of one of these more ‘triumphant’ interpretations, while keeping with the composer’s implicit wishes during the performance, allowing the audience the opportunity to draw their own comparison.

George Li and the Boston Philharmonic performed at Jordon Hall last night and will be returning to Sanders Theatre, Harvard University this afternoon, November 18th, 2012 at 3pm for the final performance of this program.

Janine Wanée holds a B.Mus. degree from the University of Southern California, a M.Mus. from Boston University, and professional certificates from the Boston University Opera Institute and summer Acting Shakespeare course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She is currently a member of the Copley Singers under Brian Jones.

16 Comments

  1. Wiki says:
    (Testimony) a work, although attributed to Shostakovich himself, is shown to have serious flaws in its credibility.

    I still want to be very careful with the quotation of Godunov theme, even though parody of the Stalin regime sounds like a legitimate explanation.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — November 18, 2012 at 11:42 pm

  2. Sunday afternoon’s concert was one of Ben Zander’s finest. The BPO was at its best technically although the huge forces were Mahlerian in size.

    Performong two of the most overplayed “warhorses” means that a conductor must impart something novel and exciting in the interpretation and this was achieved far beyond expectation.

    George Li @ age 17 is a more mature pianist than many a generation older. He has EVERYTHING..a stunning technique, gorgeous phrasing and a beauty in his playing which can move one to tears.
    Ben Zander was the perfect partner in this marvelous collaboration. How refreshing to hear the Rach #2 devoid of the usual sugary sweet, honey and maple syrup coated, overly romantic performance.

    This performance is the closest to the 1929 recording with Rachmaninov as soloist and Stowkovski and The Philadelphia Orchestra (The Naxos cd only).

    The Shost. #5 offered new insights + fascinating little details so often overlooked…the usual bombast was removed in favor of introspection.

    Comment by Ed Burke — November 19, 2012 at 3:07 am

  3. I disagree with findings above and I find that neither Rachmaninov nor Shostakovich BPO demonstrated were interesting, at least based upon what BPO showed on Saturday in NEC Hall.
    I attended Zaner introduction for the concert and uselessly those introductions are interesting. This time it was remarkably tedious with Zaner keep recycling that sentimentally-sensational crap that US propaganda loves to spread about the Mr. Shostakovich the Victim. Unfortunately the author of the review above is guilty of the same disease.

    The debate about tempo is also is a debate only by Zaner who is running to win a Salesperson of the Years. The right Shostakovich tempo is being played for years and years and I have no idea why Zaner needed to spread his phony sensationalism about that. Zaner tempo WAS spot on – exactly where it has to be and exactly how most of the sane conductors have it, so – play it with right tempo but do not portray yourself as you are character of Ein Heldenleben just because you stuck to … a right tempo.

    Rachmaninoff was OK but no cigars. George Li made pleasant impression but mostly by his first movement. In the second and the last movements it felt that he did not go for any “interesting” finesse or any refinement of his phrasing. Too generic BPO support did not help ether, so it was kind of blended play in my view, a god soup but with no salt, no paper of any other spices. The first encore George Li played was not very good ether. I do not mean to be tough on young pianist but unfortunately I value my own moronic snobbery more than gratuitous political correctness. The fun part of the story that after that unexciting Rachmaninov I did recognized George Li as a promising young pianist. I think that problem was that BPO was too shallow orchestra for him and he need to be exposed to accompaniment that able to be more open, more sensual and less “professional” in the worst definition of that meaning.

    Shostakovich did not work out for me as well. Sorry, but BPO just does not have potency to give a justice to a complex chromatic work. They are very good to show some enthusiastic rhythms with some kind of rumba-like music. It is not that I did not hear them play well complex works but it did not happen this time. The only some remote signs of “magic” took place during a few short bars of the show movement where BPO brass was thankfully (!!!) silent. Ironically the way BPO played very much reminds me that way how BSO play. This is strange as BPO us much more enthusiastic band and they could frequently show true zeal instead of the frequently demonstrable BSO’s professionally-faked enthusiasm. Unfortunately it did not happened on Saturday.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — November 19, 2012 at 11:17 am

  4. It is probable that the nostalgia expressed by Ms. Wanee arises from her first hearing the Rachmaninov Concerto No. 2 rendered in a CD recording by Vladimir Ashkenazy through excellent stereo equipment, and responsive speakers, still operational today. I still have this recording by the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink conducting.

    Comment by Ronald Wanee — November 19, 2012 at 6:25 pm

  5. It must be difficult to type with paws though I am curious about god soup. It sounds heavenly. Cats, uggh, birds are far zaner.

    Comment by Yardbird — November 19, 2012 at 9:23 pm

  6. As usual Romy is a man of few words…few that make sense.

    BTW George Li has no ego… the standing ovations and audience bravos make him feel ill at ease.
    This amazing artist is so involved with the music that nothing else is important.

    Many of Li’s videos on You Tube, even at age 11 prove that his playing was always mature… Watch and listen you will be amazed.

    Don’t miss The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra debut concert. November 25th, Sunday at 3PM
    Symphony Hall.. Beethoven “Egmont Overture”..Strauss “Ein Heldenleben” conducted by Ben Zander.
    The Elgar Cello concerto with Alisa Weilerstein is conducted by Rafael Payare an exciting young conductor, a protege of Gustavo Dudamel.

    Comment by Ed Burke — November 20, 2012 at 3:21 am

  7. *** Don’t miss The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra debut concert. November 25th, Sunday at 3PM Symphony Hall.. Beethoven “Egmont Overture”..Strauss “Ein Heldenleben” conducted by Ben Zander. The Elgar Cello concerto with Alisa Weilerstein is conducted by Rafael Payare an exciting young conductor, a protege of Gustavo Dudamel.

    I am conflicting about this event. To hear Alisa Weilerstein with Elgar accompanied buy her boyfriend is very interesting. I would like it to be however BPO Youth and not even BPO but BSO. To hear another Ein Heldenleben from Zander after his “heroic” statements in newspaper last year and his chickening out with his new Orchestra… I do not know, it is kind of tiresome. For sure it is great that new yond people can play in new orchestra, in Symphony Hall but I am not sure that only this enthusiasm is enough for me to book the tickets. Zander’s appearance yesterday on radio and selling Mr. Weilerstein as some kind of Du Pre extension via Alisa’s recent recording with Barenboim was a bit conspicuous. Barenboim never was notable with Elgar/Du Pre and many things in there were Barbirolli’s credits. Alisa Weilerstein is independent and very talented person and she does not need to sell her concerts by Zander telling stories about alien abductions and horoscope compatibility between a cellist and second horn of his orchestra.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — November 20, 2012 at 8:53 am

  8. “As usual Romy is a man of few words…few that make sense.”

    Thanks for the other information, Ed Burke, but it is neither polite nor helpful to resort to ad homin…er, ad cattums…

    Comment by nimitta — November 20, 2012 at 11:28 am

  9. “George Li @ age 17 is a more mature pianist than many a generation older. He has EVERYTHING..a stunning technique, gorgeous phrasing and a beauty in his playing which can move one to tears.”

    I had the pleasure of attending this same concert. I wanted to ask you something Ed Burke, after the ovation George Li played two solo pieces I really liked. Do you recall their names?

    Thank you.

    Comment by Quale — November 20, 2012 at 5:33 pm

  10. Hi Quale:

    George Li played 2 encores on Sunday afternoon…the first was by Chopin, the second was by
    Rachmaninoff but I’m not sure about the titles of the pieces…I can obtain the names from a friend who attended the concert when I see him at Thanksgiving dinner.

    BTW Leopold Stokowski… correct spelling this time.

    Yes, nimitta I was NOT polite etc.

    Comment by Ed Burke — November 21, 2012 at 2:57 am

  11. The answer is in paragraph 5 of the review.

    “Li’s triumphant finish was followed by a standing ovation and two Rachmaninoff encores (Daisies, and Prelude in G Minor), expressing in solo the full range of Rachmaninoff’s art.”

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 21, 2012 at 8:41 am

  12. No, they were talking about the Sunday encore.

    The first one should be Chopin’s c-sharp minor nocturne op.27.1, if I am not confused by the vast number of chopin’s piano work.

    The second one appeared to be one of Rachmaninov’s preludes. I don’t listen to his piano works a lot. But with the clues above, I can confirm it was g minor.

    too busy. more later.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — November 21, 2012 at 10:41 am

  13. Chopin has another more ‘famous’ nocturne in c-sharp minor, op.20. Thanks to the popular culture, it is made well known by the film ‘Pianist’, which also made one of Chopin’s more important work (you know it) better felt by the public.

    I don’t know what that tone meant about Li’s personality or musical taste. In the piano world I find it very appealing. To name a few: Music God’s great sonata, Brahms op76.5 and Chopin Scherzo No.3 (most Brahms-like work of Chopin’s. I could not believe it when I first listened to it)

    It is often heard that Rachmaninov PC2 opened the door of classical music for many listeners. That would have never happened to me. Having been fully aware of its beauty and weight, I don’t have much nerve touching feeling into it. Zander was right on when he said Li does not play ugly sound. Romy, we all ought to be happy to hear just a standard performance, nothing spicy and nothing too salty (I am sure it is a better experience than hearing the young Russian playing Tchaikovsky PC1). Li might have been better than standard. I thought Zander’s orchestral company was very attentive (Actually like some other important piano concertos, the orchestra is an equal partner). Perhaps I am too absolute, but I am only interested in what I heard, not so much into the fact of the talent being from a young age.

    Shostakovich 5 was very nice performance. Romy was right on Zander’s salesmanship. The background and plot of the music was well known to the classical world since 1980s. I can’t agree more that ‘The right Shostakovich tempo is being played for years and years and I have no idea why Zander needed to spread his phony sensationalism about that. Zander tempo WAS spot on – exactly where it has to be and exactly how most of the sane conductors have it, so – play it with right tempo but do not portray yourself as you are character of Ein Heldenleben just because you stuck to … a right tempo.’ To say Zander ‘offered new insights’ is kind of an exaggeration. Shostakovich 5 is like a another Mahler symphony. The recipe for success is to set non-strange tempo, make the march music loud and clear, play the strings soft and morose. This sarcasm could suit parody masters like Mahler and Shostakovich very well. Or, I am too shallow. Anyway, I enjoyed Zander and BPO’s performance.

    Finally, is the pre-concert talk helpful? Zander is not the only one who repeats opera Lady Macbeth’s review, the happy ending being false and so on. It reminds of those robotic museum guides. No matter who leads the tour, you will be told that La Grande Odalisque’s back waist is too long and J.L.David painted Lavoisier’s leg in perfect geometric angle. While people are so sympathetic with Shostakovich under Soviet control (a story very much liked by the western propaganda), how many are truly free thinkers of free spirits?

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — November 21, 2012 at 12:43 pm

  14. I suppose on the nth hearing, the story of Shostakovich’s fear for his life begins to seem tiresome, but there are probably audience members coming to the work for the first time, for whom it’s all new.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 21, 2012 at 3:03 pm

  15. The Soviet audience were TOLD of what the Pravda official review said.

    The Western audience were TOLD of Shostakovich’s musical parody against Joe Stalin.

    No matter which one is true, the majority of the audience body is only TOLD. In this sense, the talk is not helpful. Many felt sympathetic about Shostakovich, on what basis?

    Why no too much said about Prokofiev VC2 or Rachmaninov PC2? well, those works are not so obviously ‘programmed’. It is not going to be helpful, even if someone tries to explain something.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — November 21, 2012 at 10:30 pm

  16. People at the concert who had never heard Shostakovich 5 were probably incredibly interested to hear about the historical background of the piece. Remember that at every concert, someone is there for the first time. If the talk bores you, go to sleep! It’s a piece that cannot be divorced from its historical context and therefore I think it is vital to talk about the piece before it is performed.

    Comment by Waldo — November 22, 2012 at 12:14 pm

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