From the Nashville Symphony:
Lisiecki and Melodic Bounty at the Schermerhorn
At the Nashville Symphony this past weekend, the audience was treated to a melodic bounty. Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances made a curious program. A duality emerges with the pieces: Chopin wrote his concerto when he was barely 20 and the Symphonic Dances was the last piece Rachmaninoff wrote at the age of 66.
The overwhelming highlight of the evening was Jan Lisiecki’s performance in the Piano Concerto. Lisiecki, only 27, is just at the beginning of a career that makes one wonder, truly, how high is the limit? He has performed in subscription series events with the likes of the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Symphony, and the Boston Symphony. At the age of 15 he signed an exclusive record deal with Deutsche Grammophon and has since recorded nine albums with them, three of which are dedicated to Chopin’s works, including his complete Nocturnes, some Etudes, and his Piano Concertos. One of Lisiecki’s chief interests and accomplishments is with the work of Chopin. When he was 13 years old Lisiecki gained international attention for his performance of Chopin’s 2nd Piano Concerto at the “Chopin and his Europe” event in Warsaw, Poland. In my preview interview with Jan he mentioned that “there are certain composers which have a particular importance with which I have an affinity, a rapport. Chopin is certainly one of those. When I sit down at one of his compositions, I feel as if I understand the language. I know what I would like to say and I know what he is saying to me through the music.”
As such, Lisiecki has gained a reputation as one of the foremost interpreters of Chopin today and that talent was on full display Friday night. The first movement “Allegro maestoso” had all the gravitas required. At the beginning of the piece, the orchestra introduces every main theme before the piano enters. When Lisiecki did enter it was clear that he was fully in command of this performance. The first movement accounts for about half of the length of the forty-minute piece, but at no point did it ever feel tiresome. The second movement, a slow Romanze, is a loose sonata structure. This movement is unabashedly melodic and romantic. I do not believe that I have heard a more sensitive performance of this piece. As a matter of fact, I do not think I have heard a better piano soloist at the Schermerhorn—ever. In a letter to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski, Chopin described this movement as “calm and melancholy, giving the impression of someone looking gently towards a spot that calls to mind a thousand happy memories. It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.” This movement calls for the utmost delicacy. The orchestra takes much more of an accompanying role as the piano meanders up and down the keyboard. One highpoint of this concert was towards the end of this movement where the piano has three measures of transitionary material. Chopin uses simplicity, moving simple grace notes to basic chords, before beautiful cascading chromatic runs alternate with ascending arpeggios. During this small moment the audience held its collective breath as Lisiecki held the music in the palm of his hand. The third movement is a rousing Polish dance in rondo form, where the main theme is brought back again and again after contrasting themes interject. This concluding movement had the fireworks necessary to end a big concerto and the audience was waiting to reward Lisiecki with their applause.
After several curtain calls Lisiecki came back out to play an encore. After greeting the audience and wishing them a Happy New Year, he played Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor. When he announced it from the piano I was surprised at the choice; this is a somber piece and not the traditional light fare for encores. It is not a terribly complex or showy piece and does not require the level of virtuosity that concertos do. But after hearing two measures I realized that this was not the same Nocturne that I was familiar with. This was the C# minor Nocturne with a new level of profundity that I had not known was possible. Here is a performance of Jan playing this Nocturne, however it really does not capture the sound that the Schermerhorn provides in a live experience. This encore was the climax of the concert for me.
Overall, the first half was incredible. To hear one of the foremost interpreters of Chopin playing one of his concertos live was well worth the price of admission. The piece itself is not my favorite. Chopin only wrote a handful of works with the orchestra, and it is clear he was never quite comfortable writing for the orchestra; it does not have the same lucidity that he achieves in his solo piano works. Yet this was certainly a showing of the piece in its best light.
At intermission I headed straight for the gift shop hoping to get a CD of Lisiecki’s, but the gift shop was closed, perhaps a relic of the Covid era. (Curiously, when you visit the Nashville Symphony’s online Shopify storefront you are greeted with a “Sorry, this shop is currently unavailable” banner as well). Heading back to my seat I wondered if anyone even bought CDs anymore.
One note to my fellow audience members. I believe that we should all be a bit braver, myself included, in hushing an audience member during a performance. There was a gentleman and his date about 6 rows in front of me whispering loudly. After the first minute or two of people turning heads and staring daggers everyone gave up and allowed them to talk through large sections of the performance. Certainly, the concert hall is a welcoming space, but it is also an area to set aside the worries of the world and be in the presence of some of the greatest pieces of music ever written. And that should be treated with the basic courtesy of allowing your neighbors to hear the pieces uninterrupted.
The second half of the concert was Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. It is an “unofficial symphony.” It meets all the criteria of a symphony, but Rachmaninoff never gave it that distinction. Originally it was titled “Fantastic Dances” with the three movements titled as “Noon”, “Twilight”, and “Midnight.” Some have reflected that these movement titles do not refer to actual periods of the day, but periods in Rachmaninoff’s own life. This would have required tremendous foresight on Rachmaninoff’s part to predict his death a few years later. It is for the best that Rachmaninoff scrapped the titles for the movements.
The first movement is a good example of Rachmaninoff’s late style: gorgeous melodies, quick shifting harmonies, and a focus on sparer orchestral colors. This movement has an alto saxophone solo and is the only time that we know of Rachmaninoff writing for the instrument. The second movement is an addicting waltz and is strongest of the movements. The last movement features the “Dies irae” theme that is seemingly all over every Rachmaninoff work. This work expands on the darkness of the second movement, varying between faster and slower sections. The orchestra played solidly under Giancarlo Guerrero’s baton. There were a few trifles with intonation throughout, but with so much turnover in the orchestra in the recent years that can be forgiven. This was another solid showing for the Nashville Symphony and I am looking forward to hearing what they bring next.