Reaction: Lugansky Plays Rach 3 with Philadelphia Orchestra

Friday, April 29 2017
Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia Orchestra
Stéphane Denève, conductor
Nikolai Lugansky, piano

Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934)
Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909)

When all of your favorite things converge in an occasion that you’ve fantasized about for years and counted down for month, realizing that you missed the last NJ Transit train is pretty darn close to seeing your life flash before your eyes.  But since I would only miss my favorite soloist playing my favorite piano concerto with my favorite orchestra in my favorite music city over my own dead body, I shelled out an arm and a leg for an Amtrak ticket.  It was absolutely worth it, because Nikolai Lugansky playing Rachmaninoff with the Philadelphia Orchestra is everything that’s great about being alive.

Part of Philly’s Rachmaninoff Festival, with any other soloist, this ultra decadent program would probably have been too much of a good thing.  Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a tad saccharine to start with, but fortunately Mr. Lugansky is the ideal pianist to bring out its exquisite and soaring beauty while giving an overall grounded performance.  Sitting directly above and behind the orchestra, the proximity of the drums and brass took some getting used to, though I did have the best view in the house of the pianist.  Pure joy emanates from his playing, yet never indulgently so.  One of Mr. Lugansky’s artistic choices was taking ever-so-slightly longer pauses at junctures where the music was in danger of floating away.  On paper this seems counter to the spirit of the piece, but executed with urbane precision it worked splendidly.  Several years ago a critic had remarked that “[Mr.] Lugansky resurrected this work from the depths of familiarity”, which I think is the best way to describe this performance as well.  It helps that guest conductor Mr. Denève is rather understated himself, deferring to the soloist for the most part but not afraid to highlight the orchestra when the score calls for it–Philadelphia was Rachmaninoff’s favorite orchestra, after all.

I have been waiting for a Rach 3 concert in Philly for a long, long time now, because the last time that I went to one was the most bizarre concert-going experience of my life, and because no other piece of music invokes as many memories of my final year in the city.  In December 2012, the last time Rach 3 was on the Philadelphia Orchestra programming,  a broken water pipe had caused a traffic jam near Kimmel Center, delaying the arrival of many concert attendees and leading the ushers to over-seat the student ticket holders.  Then after a sensational first movement with Denis Matsuev as the soloist, dozens of student ticket holders were asked to leave to accommodate the late arrivals who paid full price for their seats.  This was actually my first time hearing Rach 3, and being so riveted by that first movement, instead of leaving altogether, we stood outside Verizon Hall and watched the rest of the concerto on a live video feed.  I sent a strongly worded email to the orchestra afterwards and was promised that my tribulations weren’t going to be in vain, and the following fall I did observe improvements to the program and like to think that I had something to do with it.  Perhaps to compensate for the experience, in the ensuing months I would listen to Rach 3 over and over again.  That summer I was commuting to New York for a gig at Columbia, and I vividly remember the music accompanying me at absurdly early hours on Monday mornings as the Philadelphia skyline disappeared from view as well as on Friday evenings when I was stuck in traffic in godforsaken parts of New Jersey but nevertheless felt relieved to be going home.  I remember how the second movement sounded different every time I listened to it (still does), how the dazzling ossia cadenza and the explosive finale never failed to make my heart burst (still never fails to), and how much I was already missing the city that had introduced me to such transformative music.  I still miss you, Philly.

On this evening I can’t say that I was able to consistently stay in the moment during the performance of Rach 3; there was the weight of the anticipation, the discomfort of spring allergies, and the stress of work gnawing at me despite my best efforts to block it out.  But still it was a near perfect experience of a near perfect performance, marred only by an inexcusable cell phone going off during the ossia cadenza.  After all, I’ve long believed that Rach 3 is best performed–and experienced–by holding just a little bit back, for otherwise one may be swept away by its dizzying percussiveness.  Impatient as I was for the culmination of the music to provide a long sought-after closure, I was nevertheless desperately wishing for time to slow down so that I can properly enjoy and process this long-awaited occasion.  And when it was all over and I was on my way back to New York, I was already pining for the next time the stars would align, as I used to fantasize about on many other trips out of Philadelphia.  There is an exquisite pain that accompanies this kind of longing, but at the same time, life without it would be inconceivably more bleak.

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