Mikhail Pletnev is one of Russia’s most influential classical artists today. He founded the Russian National Orchestra in 1990, and being a pianist, composer, and conductor, envisioned a private company entirely independent of political interest. In an all-Rachmaninoff concert, the RNO (featuring George Li on piano) performed boldly and staked its virtuosity at the Granada Theatre on February 27.
George Li and the orchestra opened with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor. Li managed incredibly difficult arpeggios (chords as separate notes) and kept impressive control. Rachmaninoff’s concerto introduces endearing lyricism that crescendos into expressive panic — culminating in brutal passion. It was astonishing to witness Li’s rapid dexterity because his hands played so interchangeably; what’s more impressive is that he seemed to strike equally well with both. With Pletnev conducting using subtle gestures, the united orchestra consistently backed Li throughout the piece.
The orchestra took center stage in part two, performing Symphonic Dances Op. 45. This final score by Rachmaninoff is unsettlingly tense, initially resembling a march. As the score progressed, it felt much more soothing and melodic compared to the former Concerto in C minor. The strings build and suspend the melody, working in unison with the woodwinds, percussion, and horns. Staccato (jumping) notes frequently punctuate the sequence so that the music moves without resolving until the very end. Part two was pleasurably eccentric and dramatic — with the performance properly highlighting all the instruments.
Listening to classical music is a double-edge sword. Like with most things, we can become mechanic listeners and forget the genre’s intricate technique. Before we know it, classical music lapses into white noise. I think it’s safe to say that the RNO’s performance revived not only an awe for Rachmaninoff, but an appreciation for the classical genre.