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
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
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.
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.