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The Amazing Daniil Trifonov with The Russian National Orchestra

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Daniil Trifonov

Daniil Trifonov

The Russian National Orchestra
Davies Hall, San Francisco
February 12, 2013
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
Daniil Trifonov, piano

Smetana – Overture to The Bartered Bride
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Opus 23
Dvořák – Symphony No. 6 in D-major, Opus 60

It’s simply a mystery that they can be so good, this new generation of pianists: Fray, Matsuev, Kempf, Lang, Wang—how many more—and now Daniil Trifonov, more stunning in Tchaikovsky than you could imagine! But last Tuesday, the Russian National Orchestra, on tour to Davies Hall with Trifonov in tow, contributed a mystery of its own. First things first.

One of the joys with a visiting orchestra is to experience new sonorities—to be swept richly downward, perhaps, to unanticipated string depths—to hear brass playing grainier or more golden than you thought possible in the hall—or wind passages lighter and more personal than you might have dreamed. More importantly, you come to sense the ensemble’s psychology, as individual in its way as the conductor’s. Listen to an orchestra like the Mariinsky, and you experience shivers of delight. How Russian it seems!

But how to assess and what to say, when the orchestra turns out to be “The Russian National Orchestra-Sort-Of”—”The Russian National Orchestra-Lite?” A good bit of this orchestra, frankly, appeared to be missing….Not a wise cost-cutting measure, I’d think.

So much of what makes sound beautiful has to do with texture and the weight of texture, as true in music as in beer…But the group which took the stage for this concert did so in oddly reduced numbers. With only five double-basses (merely four in the Tchaikovsky) and horns massing left to add weight where deficient, the orchestra seemed alarmingly lopsided. It sounded thin and neutral, like the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. In lieu of any special richness or coloration, unusual with Russians, one experienced machine-like string wizardry, unaffected by anything you’d be tempted to call a “sound”, and a great deal of youthful zest. The players, indeed, had few grey heads among them.

Presiding as cheerleader was Giancarlo Guerrero, a hearty Costa Rican of Nicaraguan birth, whose squared off features and shoulder-padded tailoring made for a riff on boxiness, in vivid contrast to his soloist. Like Gustavo Dudamel, Guerrero delivers his cues mostly to the front, which makes them hard to see from the audience. His manner is highly enthusiastic, though he is prone to fairly neutral phrasing. Here, he just seemed to be reaching too hard for excitement, jumping on and off the podium. It was like watching a trainer lead exercises on a cruise ship… No electric megaphone, fortunately.

The repertory chosen for the evening worked well under these limitations. The Bartered Bride Overture came across the footlights with real whiz-bang as a perpetuum-mobile. And at concert’s end, there was a similar virtuosic reprieve with the Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture, played as breathless encore. In between, we heard the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto and the Dvořák Sixth Symphony, the latter delivered like Brahms-lite, with a decent ebb and flow, but once again precision over weight and generic energy over personality.

Before the concerto, it took some doing for the house-crew to bring Trifonov’s piano up from the lower reaches. One stage hand, looking bored and murderous, amused himself lifting chairs as if they were made of matchsticks—like one’s neck! Another, straight from Charles Addams, must have stood motionless for five minutes at the edge of the crater, peering intently into the blackness like a buzzard. All very appropriate, given what was to follow, when the instrument itself finally arrived!

The Tchaikovsky was the thing, quite frankly. Even so, I was not prepared for the amazement I experienced hearing and seeing Daniil Trifonov live for the first time. Here we have again a tall Russian pianist, but Trifonov bears no resemblance to the gentle Russian bear, Denis Matsuev, familiar to San Francisco audiences, who looks down ruefully at the piano, as though he’d easily break it. No, this is Robert Pattinson, the pianist as “Twilight” vampire, translucent and eternal, with the floppy romantic hair of the living dead and arachnids for fingers! The Charles Addams stagehand had it right.

Vampirism is a different form of love-death from Wagner’s—but appropriate to the stinging life and death stakes with which the young invest romance. How cathartic and satisfying to experience eternity with someone who is already reliably dead! And how special to indulge at leisure the special sense adolescents have that their bodies are doing unimaginably weird things to them! From the way Daniil Trifonov looked down at his hands, you’d have thought they didn’t belong to him. He operated them like a puppeteer dangling tarantulas over the keyboard, and with the crazed smiling intensity of a Unibomber hovering over his device.  But what fingers! Trifonov has a way of introducing rubato into the fastest passagework imaginable, just where you think it would not be humanly possible to do so. I’ve never heard the Tchaikovsky come so alive, as if each solo passage were its own cadenza. The orchestra went wild, but could not drown him out. And the audience went wilder still.

Musical interpretation is all about parameters. And originality is all about what you can do within them. Daniil Trifonov was going down the road doing things Horowitz could never have done—and doing them on a skateboard. I can only suppose, as the ravished screams of countless young women rang out in the hall, that Kristen Stewart was waiting in the wings!

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