Stephen Hough “Shines” in Rach 3 with Seattle Symphony
If notes were steps, Stephen Hough would have run—and won—a full marathon playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall Thursday night. He’ll do it again three more times this weekend. From the look of Thursday evening’s almost-full hall, tickets are selling briskly.
Made even more famous than it was already by its use in the movie Shine (about the Australian pianist David Helfgott), this concerto is an Everest for performers, loaded with notes to be played at warp speed. Where Hough is unusual is in his ability to add phrasing even when his hands are a blur on the keys.
In the few slower moments, including the lovely theme at the start, he gave an expressive nuance hardly possible the rest of the time. Hough’s playing is extraordinarily clean for such a work, with never a misplaced note, and while his playing is decisive, he never bangs on the keyboard. In the few moments when he was not playing he mopped the sweat from his brow and wiped the keys with his black handkerchief.
The orchestra under Ludovic Morlot kept pace with him, with fine solos from principals Seth Krimsky, bassoon, and Ben Hausmann, oboe.
Exciting as this performance was, the highlight of the concert came earlier with a superb performance by the orchestra and Morlot of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2. We are so used to thinking of Ives as an iconoclast whose music is quirky to a degree, fascinating and challenging to play and to hear, that this symphony written in his mid-to-late 20s comes as a surprise. It is in straightforward symphonic mode, showing the composer’s thorough grasp of European compositional style and of inspired orchestration.
Yes, there are many instances where he has incorporated snatches of popular songs, most familiarly Camptown Races and Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, but this is a time-honored choice of many composers. Only at the very last does Ives present us with a sudden surprise, departing from conventional harmonies to end on a clashingly dissonant chord.
The orchestra played it with freshness and verve under Morlot’s firm but easy guiding hand, bringing out a myriad little details and with notable solos from the horns and principal cello Efe Baltacigil.
The concert began with another, quintessentially American work, Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. Quite short, it received a vibrant, scintillating performance from Morlot and the orchestra, the conductor almost dancing on the podium and conveying his exuberance to the musicians.
Before the concert bagan, three musicians were honored on their departure from the orchestra. Violinist Jun Liang Du, in the orchestra since 1986, has already left, but second violinist Virginia Hunt Luce, who has played in the orchestra 46 years, received a warm tribute from colleague Sande Gillette, and cellist Susan Williams with 35 years under her belt, was lauded by violist Vincent Comer.