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By Mary Kunz Goldman

News Classical Music Critic

The pianist Jon Kimura Parker is the soloist in this weekend’s intense, Russian concert at Kleinhans Music Hall. And on Saturday, he threw in a surprise.

Parker had just brought the packed house of listeners to their feet with his witty ending to Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” Acknowledging the continual rounds of applause, he sat down at the piano and faced us.

“I was just at my high school reunion. I won’t say which one,” he said. Then he explained that his classmates had asked him to play the class song, and said he would like to play it for us, too.

And he played Billy Joel’s “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.”

What a kick. Here we are, the last concert of the season, you think you have seen it all, and you realize you have not. Parker filled the song with the same technique we had heard in the Rachmaninoff. There were the repeated notes, quick like a jackhammer. And the taut excitement. There was only one thing he could have done to improve it, and that is to pick up a microphone and sing it. Maybe next time!

There does seem to be little that Parker can’t do.

A big, hearty gentleman, he strides out on stage confidently, cheerily. He jauntily greeted Michael Ludwig – on his last concert as the BPO’s concertmaster – and Music Director JoAnn Falletta. He smiled and took his seat at the Steinway.

He was not, alas, in formal concert attire, which I think Rachmaninoff requires. Other than that, though, he gave the famous “Rhapsody” its due. It was an all-out exciting performance, almost to a fault. The opening variations were so brisk that it sometimes seemed that piano and orchestra were chasing each other. Through all the twists and turns, though, you never worried. Parker had things under control. His playing was strong and resonant. Every note was just so, neatly clipped.

Beyond that, he had a solid plan of attack. In the romantic, famous variation – the one heard in the movie “Somewhere In Time” – I wondered if he had thought it out too much. Everyone has intensely personal feelings about the “Rhapsody,” though, and however you like it there was no denying that Parker nailed it.

The orchestra gave the music the right sheen and excitement. And there was no beating that ending. Parker’s coolness on the keys, his wit, and the way he held his hands – I think we will all remember that, along with the Billy Joel.

The concert began with a real gem from Tsarist Russia. Nikolay Tcherepnin’s Prelude from “La Princesse lointaine,” a BPO premiere, is as atmospheric as “Doctor Zhivago.” It begins with a deep solo from Principal Cellist Roman Mekinulov, which sets the tone perfectly. There is always something stirring to hear Mekinulov, who comes from Russia, playing the music of his countrymen. From that moment until the ravishing ending, colored delicately by the flute, the piece was – well, I will just second the opinion of the listener behind me, who simply whispered: “That was beautiful.”

Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony was as tumultuous as you would expect, given what had come before. It begins with groaning depths and then builds to shining heights, with lots of contrast along the way: a quiet wind interlude is interrupted by a shocking forte, lightning-quick cello lines give way to crisp trumpet blasts. Falletta reveled in the famous first movement theme, shaping it lovingly, giving it room. Is it wrong to say the orchestra wallowed in the music? I think that is what Tchaikovsky wanted us to do.

The audience favorite was clearly the third movement with its Russian military might. The symphony fakes you out. It builds to such a glorious martial denouement that everyone starts applauding, and you get swept up in the excitement and have to restrain yourself and say wait, there’s still the Adagio to come. Tchaikovsky was a great dramatist and must have had his own reasons for setting it up that way. The symphony is, after all, the “Pathetique.” It’s not supposed to send you out cheering.

But it did. The huge crowd loved the music, so tender, so brooding.

The concert celebrated several anniversaries. Falletta has been here 15 years. Executive Director Dan Hart has been here a decade. Assistant Property Manager Charles Gill celebrated 30 years on the job. Cited in a special way was Principal Violist Valerie Heywood, marking 30 years with the BPO. When she took her seat, she was greeted by applause from her colleagues. She took a little bow. It was sweet to see.

The emotional concert repeats today at 2:30 p.m.

email: mkunz@buffnews.com