Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, May 29, 2001

Pianist Misha Dichter
performs Tchaikovsky
with technical brilliance

Review By Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin

Tchaikovsky composed more than his fair share of beautiful melodies, which means that when it was fashionable for "serious" musicians to scorn all things popular, he also attracted more than his fair share of criticism.

Awash in sumptuous sound (and trying hard not to hum along), listeners tend to overlook his clear forms, skillful orchestration, subtle polyphony and canny timing.

In fact, one of the reasons Tchaikovsky can sound cliché is because so many composers borrowed from him. The one aspect they could not borrow was his melodic gift, a gift that produced an embarrassment of riches in the tradition of Mozart and Schubert.

It is much easier to criticize than to create one of those melodies; Tchaikovsky created literally scores of them.

The Honolulu Symphony is closing its season with another Russian program, one in counterpart to the "serious" Shostakovich: an all-Tchaikovsky "popular" program including the little-known Symphony No. 2, and the hugely famous Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture and Piano Concerto No. 1 with Misha Dichter.

Dichter has been performing Tchaikovsky's Herculean concerto for nigh on four decades. His fingers fairly flew over its furiously difficult passages, hammering out octaves, muscling through the music, pushing the orchestra faster with each entry. It was a technical tour de force.

In his solo passages, Dichter seemed to relax his intensity, occasionally revealing a tender lyricism that hinted of better performances. Dichter also carefully delineated foreground and background notes out of the masses Tchaikovsky wrote, lending the concerto a rare clarity.

What Dichter gained in technical brilliance, however, he lost in emotional depth. His emotional struggle and musical decisions apparently long past, all that was left was to play the notes.

Tchaikovsky built the concerto as a partnership between piano and orchestra -- in perhaps no other concerto does the soloist accompany so much -- but Dichter accompanied perfunctorily, coming alive mainly for "the good parts."

Speaking of the concert beforehand, maestro Samuel Wong noted that, "With each pianist (performing this concerto) comes a different Weltanschauung (world view). ... You have to adjust, and if it's a great artist, you have to do a lot of adjusting."

Dichter is a great artist, and Wong did a lot of adjusting.

Communication between the two was almost nonexistent. The orchestra "spoke" only when alone; the rest of the time it simply accompanied, adjusting as quickly as possible to Dichter's tempo changes. Dichter and Wong melded best in sections of the last two movements.

Wong opened the program with a lovely as always but unremarkable "Romeo and Juliet," concentrating his efforts instead on the finale, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2.

The orchestra's ensemble and balance were best in this work, with its powerful brass choirs, woodwinds light-of-foot, and lyrical strings.

Tchaikovsky had a love affair with French horns: Principal Ken Friedenberg shone throughout the concert, but particularly in this work, with its dark Russian melodies.

Symphony No. 2, neither as popular nor as well written as the later symphonies, is nonetheless a charming work that reveals a rawer, more overtly Russian Tchaikovsky. Its fourth and strongest movement provided a triumphant close to the season.

The concert was dedicated to retiring violinist Dale Bechtel, who has been playing with the Honolulu Symphony since 1954.

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