Reviewed by Lee Shepherd
The Binghamton Philharmonic’s concert Saturday (April 29) at The Forum in Binghamton should have been called the battle of the show-stoppers.
A massive (nearly an hour long) Brahms’ piano concerto with guest artist Andrew Russo filled the first half of the concert; the second half of the program ended with Stravinsky’s exhilarating Firebird Suite, a show-stopper to end all show-stoppers.
In between, we sampled a Viennese delicacy, Mozart’s overture from The Magic Flute.
Russo, playing Brahms’ Concerto for Piano No. 1, Op. 15, in D minor, poured every inch of his tall frame and enormous strength into the work. In fact, I worried for the safety of the Steinway, as he slammed the keyboard and pedals with brutal force. But he also was capable of immense tenderness and pathos. While much of Brahms’ music is a marriage of heart and mind, the middle movement of the concerto is all emotion — thought to be the 26-year–old composer’s love note to Clara Schumann.
At times, Russo was hard to watch, his face in agonizing contortions, his body and head torqued away from the keyboard. But the music that resulted was nothing less than sublime. A finalist in the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, he is known for his diverse interests in politics and business. His day job? Russo directs a financial services’ business in Syracuse and once ran for New York State Senate.
In this race for voter approval, Russo earned a standing ovation and two curtain calls.
Needless to say, the orchestral part to the Brahms is fiendishly difficult, but apparently not a bit daunting to members of the BPO, who matched Russo parry for parry.
Sounding deceptively easy, playful and folksy, the overture to The Magic Flute is full of technical challenges.The trick with Mozart always is to play cleanly and with precision. At this, the BPO excelled. From the opening majestic knock on the door to the many fugue treatments of the themes, the music was simply a joy to hear.
In a clever piece of programming, BPO principal conductor Daniel Hege placed the Firebird Suite last because, as he said, “nothing can top it.” Written in six months for a Diaghilev ballet, the 45-minute piece borrowed shamelessly from works by Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. Yet, it is truly original: unpretentious, fearless, primal and offering the greatest part ever for bass drum. Our hearts pounded and our blood pressure soared right along with the musicians on stage.
Of course, there was a standing ovation, and well earned.
By the way, this concert, was Hege’s official “audition” for the permanent position of conductor of the Binghamton Philharmonic, replacing Jose-Luis Novo. Three more finalists, who will be announced this week, will conduct concerts during the 2017-18 season.
As far as this critic is concerned, he’s already won hands down, whatever the competition. His flair for programming, rapport with audience and players, clear conducting style and humor make him a very fine choice indeed for the permanent post.
What’s next? Hege will conducts the BPO in a Star Wars concert at 7:3o p.m. Thursday at The Forum, 236 Washington St., Binghamton. Why a Thursday? It’s May 4, Star Wars Day, as in “May the Force (May the Fourth) be with you.” The concert will feature all your favorite soundtrack moments. Visit binghamtonphilharmonic.org for ticket information.