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Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, January 17, 2000

Symphony rose
to Serkin challenge

By Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin


Bullet Peter Serkin in recital: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Mamiya Theate, with music of Wolpe, Stravinsky, Beethoven and Mozart. Tickets $30. Call 792-2000.

MIX-UPS happen. As when the orchestra prepares one concerto (Brahms' Concerto No. 2 in B-flat) and the guest soloist prepares another (No. 1 in D minor). No one's fault exactly, but clearly one or the other has to make some concessions. The Honolulu Symphony's management accepted responsibility, and the orchestra graciously switched concertos.

"We prepared both concertos, so we could play the second as an encore," maestro Samuel Wong quipped, "It will be the longest encore in history, 47 minutes."

Brahms completed his first piano concerto in 1858, when he was 25 and in love with Schumann's wife, Clara, possibly the finest pianist of her generation. Clearly an early work (its orchestration is remarkably unremarkable), the concerto is ungrateful to performers. It is difficult without being impressive and, worse, the soloist rarely has a clear melody: most melodies are built into chords or integrated with the orchestra.

That said, pianist Peter Serkin played with a sensitivity and understanding crucial for Brahms. He highlighted Brahms' brilliance and managed to make the unimpressive more noteworthy. It was not an especially clean performance, but the goal of live performance is not an absence of wrong notes, and Serkin took risks that paid off, from his powerful octaves opening the recapitulation of the first movement, to a magical transformation of trills in the second movement.

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 occupied the second half hour all by itself. Wong forewarned, "It's one of those pieces you have to be in the mood for: it meanders, and if you're not careful, you might wander too far and lose concentration."

Shostakovich completed the symphony in 1953, just after Stalin's death, and it remains obstinately programmatic in feel, even though Shostakovich refused to provide a program. The second movement, for example, with its manic wind solos, frenzied strings and wild percussion goes beyond daring into shocking. Disconcerting to sit through, it is as crystal clear a depiction of brutal insanity ever composed.

The symphony reveals a master storyteller and one of the great orchestrators. Consequently, there were more many outstanding solos: kudos to the French horns and trombones, the flute and piccolo, oboe, English horn, bassoon and contrabassoon, clarinet, timpani, percussion, strings ...

Shostakovich's 10th symphony is one of the 20th century's masterworks, yet it is rarely performed, partly because of its length. Thanks to maestro Wong, Honolulu had the opportunity to hear an excellent performance of a difficult work.

Ruth O. Bingham has a Ph.D. in musicology from Cornell University,
and teaches at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.

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