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SA Symphony, SLL, Gerstein, Camerata

A feast of Brahms, with plenty of feeling

February 10, 2013

Let no one doubt the work ethic of the pianist Kirill Gerstein, who anchored a weekend-plus, Feb. 7-9, of the city-wide Brahms Festival. To cap a Camerata San Antonio concert Thursday in Christ Episcopal Church, he essayed the gargantuan Variations on a Theme of Paganini.  Then he delivered highly personal accounts of the two piano concerti with the San Antonio Symphony under music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing on Friday (No. 1 in D Minor) and Saturday (No. 2 in B-flat) in the Majestic Theatre.

There was much to cheer beyond Mr. Gerstein’s contributions. Camerata opened its concert with a go-for-broke, fully engaged account of the String Quartet No. 2 in A minor. Mr. Lang-Lessing led a superbly detailed, carefully balanced performance of the Symphony No. 1 on Friday, with the orchestra playing more beautifully than I’ve ever heard it before. The Symphony No. 2, on Saturday, suffered from a few too many glitches, but it’s asking a lot of an orchestra to play two very big programs on consecutive nights. Each symphony concert closed with a lively, lusty Hungarian Dance -- No. 1 on Friday, No. 6 on Saturday.

The Paganini Variations are notoriously difficult, and the piece can come across as being more about the technical demands than about music. But Mr. Gerstein’s shaping of dynamics and tempi exposed the humanity within these virtuosic showpieces.

More memorable still were his miraculous touch and bell-like tone in the more-delicate variations, such as No. 12 of Book 1. Here, and in comparably gossamer passages of the two concerti, Mr. Gerstein did not so much play the piano as seduce sighs and murmurs from it. And when tornadic power and blizzards of octaves were called for, he was fully up to the task.

Mr. Gerstein also plays jazz -- he entered the Berklee College of Music at age 14 at the invitation of the jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton, who heard the young pianist improvise in his native Russia. He brought some of the jazz musician’s freedom to bear on the two piano concerti, which breathed like living creatures, one phrase tightly coiled, the next more expansive, as the music and the heart may prompt.

Among the loveliest passages in the Piano Concerto No. 2 are the broad, yearning melodies for solo cello that frame the slow movement. Principal cellist Ken Freudigman played these lines with extraordinary grace. Following the concerto, Mr. Freudigman and Mr. Gerstein played an arrangement of a Brahms song that used the same tune, “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer.” That and three other songs had been the gorgeous centerpiece of the Camerata concert two nights earlier.

Mr. Lang-Lessing certainly has a way with Brahms. The complex architecture of the two symphonies sounded uncommonly integral and clear in these seamless performances, and the First benefited from particularly adept tempo relations. 
The orchestra played brilliantly in the First Symphony. The violins have never sounded so silken, full, transparent and unified. Guest concertmaster Jun Yi Ma displayed first-class musicianship and a bright, very attractive tone in his solo in the slow movement. (Joining Camerata in the two Brahms string sextets on Jan. 31, his tone was a bit too bright and aggressive for the intimate space of Christ Church.)

The performance standard faded noticeably in the outer allegros of the Second Symphony, but the middle movements were well put together.

Four of the symphony’s musicians, playing under the Camerata aegis, were also the perpetrators of that splendid String Quartet No. 2. Violinist Matthew Zerweck and Mr. Freudigman on cello contributed most of the fire. Violinist Anastasia Storer and violist Emily Freudigman were somewhat cooler voices. Especially convincing were the slow movement, with restless, animated lines; and the propulsive finale, played full-throttle and earning a huge ovation.

Mike Greenberg

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