Smetana, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and Glinka: Tuesday's program at Davies Symphony Hall by the Russian National Orchestra and its guest conductor, Giancarlo Guerrero, won't win any awards for innovative programming. It was a high-level performance of meat-and-potatoes repertory, easy to enjoy.
But there was news: the Bay Area orchestral debut of pianist Daniil Trifonov, the 21-year-old Russian virtuoso. Last season, he won the Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein competitions. This season, he is debuting with four of the "Big Five" orchestras: New York, Chicago, Boston and Cleveland. His Feb. 5 debut recital at Carnegie Hall will be released on Deutsche Grammophon, a prestige label. Oh, and he still is a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
He is human: One year ago, when Trifonov gave a recital at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, this writer watched as a large moth flitted across the keys, then jumped up and batted the pianist on the cheek. He swatted at it and lost his place in Debussy's "Hommage à Rameau."
There were no moths nor mishaps during Tuesday's program, the first of two this week by the Russians. (They are being presented by the San Francisco Symphony as part of its Great Performers Series.) Trifonov's rendering of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor was poetic and fierce, and the fact that he appears as shy and slender as a boy out of a Dickens novel only added to the effect.
It wasn't a typical
Guerrero drew a big vital sound from the orchestra, with deep rosy hues from the strings: the sounds of good health.
Balance, however, was sometimes an issue: i.e., inaudible brass during a dramatic tutti passage. Early in the lyric middle movement (introduced by unusually plush flute-work), there was a wobbly moment or two when the soloist (who plays on the off-beat here) and orchestra got out of sync. Where was Guerrero? Yet it was during this movement's scherzolike interlude, played at something like triple-tempo, that Trifonov was at his best: super-delicate streams of notes, like dustings of sugar. In the finale, he and the conductor toyed with surges of tempo, as Trifonov went whirlpooling through more of those mad octaves to close it out.
He played an encore: Liszt's transcription of Schumann's "Widmung." This was all heart and song, the most moving three minutes of the evening.
After intermission, Guerrero led the orchestra in Dvorak's Symphony No. 6 in D major, which pulsed with color and more of that healthy outdoorsy-ness through its opening Allegro. The Adagio captured the solace of Beethoven, Dvorak's inspiration here, as Guerrero painted with horns and cellos, violas and flutes. It was lush and lovely. The Scherzo -- fired by a Bohemian folk dance, the furiant -- lacked tautness and a knockout punch. The finale was thick with buzzing crosscurrents, but perhaps not as heroic as Dvorak intended.
The orchestra's most consistent performance was its encore: Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmila" Overture, a virtuoso showpiece. This was a bundle of energy, transmitted with precision and with lavish melody.
Two hours before, Guerrero and his musicians began with Smetana's Overture to "The Bartered Bride" -- not as consistent. Still, those bumblebee strings! Those rosy-toned effervescences!
To your health!